Friday, April 29, 2011

Vegas Knights



Vegas Knights was one of those books I took a chance on. The bright cover with it's aerial shots of Sin City's bright lights caught my attention from the new releases rack and I picked it up. I'd never read or heard of author Matt Forbeck before. The front cover blurb proclaimed 'It's Ocean's Eleven meets Harry Potter when two college students scam a Vegas casino - using magic'

The back cover description didn't give me a lot more, but I love Vegas and I'm a sucker for a decent caper novel, so I decided to see what this was all about.

I tend to disagree with the Ocean's Eleven meets Harry Potter comparison, although that is how Matt Forbeck pitched the concept. Ocean's Eleven was about a heist and this isn't what the two 'heroes' of Vegas Knights are about, they use magic to alter the cards on the table and thus affect the outcome of the game. I also find the Harry Potter thing to be way overused now. It's became common for anyone learning magic in fiction to be compared to J.K Rowling's boy wizard whether or not it's a valid comparison. If I were asked to provide a front cover blurb for Vegas Knights it would be: 'Bringing Down the House with magic'

The book's opening sequence reminded me very strongly of Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House (filmed as 21) and that's pretty much what it is until one of the protagonists, the irresponsible Bill, gets drunk and lets a pretty Indian shaman by the name of Powi in on what he can do. From that point on Bill and Jackson (the narrator) find themself drawn into a game where the stakes aren't money, they're life and the fate of the world.

It's a fast paced, easily written book. The prose is nothing to rave over, but it gets the point across and being a fan of Vegas and con jobs I liked the idea and the inclusion of colourful footnote characters from history such as Harry Houdini and Bugsy Siegel.

It won't tax your brain much, but you'll probably have a lot of fun reading Vegas Knights. At times it's rather like reading a movie and it was no surprise to find out that Matt Forbeck is a game designer and did pitch Vegas Knights as both a game and a movie before making it into a novel.

Warriors 1



In 2010 a massive anthology called Warriors was released. It was a grab bag of stories loosely themed by being about warriors. The line up of writers was 5 star stuff from Tad Williams to one of the books editors George R.R Martin. I never bought the book at the time, because I find hard covers overpriced and not particularly travel friendly (I do most of my reading on the train to and from work), and I was really only in it for Martin’s contribution.

A couple of weeks ago a paperback of this anthology (note: the stories will be released in 3 separate paperbacks, the collection is simply too large to be released as one single paperback and the publishers will probably wind up making more money by releasing it as 3 books) appeared on the new releases at my local SFF shop, so I snapped it up.

I’m not really a fan of short stories or anthologies, but I am a bit of a fanboy when it comes to George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and there was an Ice and Fire related story in the first volume of Warriors.

The book begins with an introduction by the man himself; George R.R Martin. He reminisces about growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, and how his love of reading and writing was kindled by browsing through the local corner store’s selection of paperbacks. The paperbacks lived on something called a ‘spinner rack’, and you never quite knew what you were going to get. George likens the selection of stories contained between the covers of Warriors to the selection of books on that spinner rack.

Forever BoundJoe Haldeman. I’ve never read anything by Joe Haldeman. He’s largely a military SF writer and that’s simply not my thing. This story was set in his Forever World universe and concerned a student drafted into the army due to his aptitude for being able to operate a huge battle machine called a Soldierboy. The story covers some of his basic training and his relationship with a fellow draftee. It lost focus after he met the girl. The story from that point on concerned itself more with the interesting sorts of sex they could have utilising their cerebral implants than anything else. It may have helped if I’d read any of the Forever World books, the story didn’t inspire me to try them, though.

The Eagle and The RabbitSteven Saylor. Steven Saylor is a historical novelist whose area of interest is the Roman empire. This story is about the sack of Carthage and the psychological and physical battle between a captured Cartharginian slave and the cruel, brutal Roman slaver that takes him prisoner. A fairly entertaining piece of historical fiction.

And Ministers of GraceTad Williams. I like Tad Williams writing. I always have. This is pure space opera about a cybernetically enhanced assassin in a religiously dominated future. It’s very bleak and suffers a little from brevity. Williams is at his best when he can build elaborate, intricate worlds and the constraints of the short story format don’t allow him to do that. I did like the name of the assassin though, Lamentation Kane. He reminded me a little of Jubal Early from the Firefly movie; Serenity.

The King of NorwayCecelia Holland. I’ve heard and seen the name, but never read her. According to the brief bio at the start of her story she’s a highly respected historical novelist. You wouldn’t know it judging from The King of Norway. It’s a story of Viking raiders, it’s largely one confusing blood soaked battle scene. Boring and not one character connected with me. Henry Treece did this sort of thing far better back in the ‘60’s and he wrote for a pre teen audience.

Defenders of the FrontierRobert Silverberg. By far the most decorated author in the anthology. In fact I think it was Silverberg’s own anthologies; Legends I and II, that inspired George R.R Martin (who was a contributor to both) to get this project off the ground. The story concerns a group of warriors defending an endless frontier with the distinct feeling that the war is over and they’ve been forgotten by their Empire. What made it hard to connect or develop sympathy with the characters was a very clever trick that Silverberg employed, the characters were only known by their position within the unit (eg: Captain, Engineer, Surveyor, etc…). I found myself wondering at the end what the point of the whole thing was. Nice use of language, though.

The Mystery KnightGeorge R.R Martin. Largely the reason I purchased the anthology. The Mystery Knight is the 3rd ‘Dunk and Egg’ story. These tales about a hedge knight in a Westeros roughly 90 years before the events in A Song of Ice and Fire, first appeared in Legends I, and that was called The Hedge Knight, Legends II had the follow up The Sworn Sword. I believe Martin originally wrote The Mystery Knight for a 3rd Legends collection that never eventuated and he dusted it off and polished it up for Warriors. Of the 3 my favourite is still The Hedge Knight, however like George R.R Martin, I relish any excuse to visit Westeros and that’s what The Mystery Knight is. I suspect George likes going back into Westeros history and playing around there, which is what the Dunk and Egg stories allow him to do. This one is a fun romp with Dunk trying and failing to win glory for himself, but instead enveloping himself in a deadly murder mystery that could have ramifications for the holder of the Iron Throne itself. It was definitely the standout story of this collection. You don’t have to have read any of A Song of Ice and Fire or the previous 2 Dunk and Egg stories to get a kick out of this, but afficionadoes are privy to a few in jokes and get some more context being aware of events before and after.

I’m undecided as to whether I’ll pick up the next two Warriors collections in paperback, it will depend on the roster of writers. I will say that given the calibre of writers for this collection I came away a little disappointed.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ever seen a dragon dance?



After close to 6 years George R.R Martin has completed the manuscript for A Dance with Dragons. In true George fashion after promising an unambiguous post of ‘It’s Done! announcing the completion, he instead posted a picture of a dead King Kong from the 1976 version of the film with the words ‘twas beauty…’ (see http://grrm.livejournal.com). This time fans leapt to the correct conclusion, thus sparing us all from another ‘No, no, no!’ scolding post from the author, and his publisher confirmed that the manuscript had in fact been handed in. I personally thought once the July 12th publishing date had been set that there was little doubt George would complete the manuscript in time for it to make the deadline. Back to Westeros in July, I can barely wait.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fables: Rose Red



It's always time for me to rejoice and do the Snoopy dance whenever I wander into my local comic shop and see the newest Fables collection on the shelf. I don't actually do the dance in the shop, because then the people there would think that I'm even weirder than they currently do think I am. My feet are dancing inside my head, though. I was delighted to see Rose Red there recently and even better considering the cliff hanger that Fables #14 Witches, left us on.

The title suggests that the story is largely about Snow White's lesser known sister; Rose. Rose has been largely comatose, refusing to get out of bed, ever since Boy Blue rejected her just before he died.

The opening covers how the Fables prevented The Blue Fairy from killing Gepetto once Ozma had brought her to the Mundane world and the Fables farm. This was circumvented fairly simply and may I say here that I'm really not liking Pinnochio any more.

A dream version of Rose's mother visits here and we see Rose's story presented and this helps her deal with the mess she had made of her life and take charge of the Farm once again.

While Rose is doing this Frau Totenkinder, has gone to the Homelands, hooked up with the magician that originally imprisoned Mr Dark and made plans. Totenkinder is now in her guise as her younger version, a beautiful woman called Bellflower.

Beauty has her baby and to the joy of all concerned he isn't a monster as Frau Totenkinder's baby clothes suggested, despite her past, the old lady is quite a practical joker.

The confrontation between Totenkinder/Bellflower and Dark is truly epic and wonderfully presented.

Although the Fables seem to have put everything behind them and are getting their lives back in order the two epilogues hint that Dark is not done with and things in the Beauty and Beast house may not be as they appear.

Nicely set up for collection #16, which I'm already impatient for.

Fables #15 also contains the huge 100th issue which mostly concerns the battle between Dark and Totenkinder. Willingham's writing is as always fresh and crisp with plenty of emotion and twists and turns. Buckingham's pencils compliment it perfectly and I can't imagine anyone else drawing Fables now.

My only complaint is the time they take between publishing the collections. Damn! I have to wait until late in the year now.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Divine Misfortune



When I want to read something that is funny, entertaining and fresh I know I can rely on A. Lee Martinez to deliver.

I first discovered this author last year when I picked up his debut (released in 2006, yes I am behind the times) Gil’s All Fright Diner and loved it so much I read another of the same author’s books (Monster) as soon as I could track down a copy. Divine Misfortune was always going to be on my shopping list once it was released into mmpb.

Divine Misfortune is A. Lee Martinez’s sixth novel, which makes him fairly prolific, and even more unusually he has yet to write a sequel to anything (I’d personally love to see a follow up to Gil’s All Fright Diner). As always with Martinez the premise is pretty out there, and hilarious mayhem ensues.

Phil and Teri Robinson are a typical young suburban couple who know things can be a little better, but to do it they have to get a god to worship. Most of their friends and neighbours have their own personal deities and it’s working out fine for them, so why not Phil and Teri? A search at Pantheon.com leads them to an unassuming, reasonable with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and raccoon heads, he goes by the name of Luka, although he prefers to be called Lucky. Lucky is a god of good fortune, he’s great for finding a parking space in a crowded mall or picking up a lot of loose change under your couch cushions, but unfortunately when Phil and Teri sign on with the raccoon headed god they get him as a house guest, and he brings his best friend Quick (most people know him as Quetzalcoatl) who has been a bit down on his luck since the fall of the Aztec empire, and is happy to crash on Phil and Teri’s couch for a while.

Despite Quick’s presence, and the fact that Lucky starts a relationship with Teri’s friend deity groupie Janet, things with the god of good fortune are working out fine, or rather they would have if Lucky had not forgotten to mention that tragedy goddess Syph had never gotten over him dumping her, and still holds a goddess sized grudge about it. Then of course there’s the feud he has with old style chaos and blood god Gorgoz. Phil and Teri may be able to win lots of free stuff, but as long as Lucky is around they’re going to have trouble staying alive long enough to enjoy any of it.

I expect lots of laughs when I crack open an A. Lee Martinez and I was not disappointed with Divine Misfortune. The situations are ridiculous, but contain enough wit and satire to keep the narrative moving along smoothly. Phil and Teri were very real protagonists and refreshingly normal, they were also a great contrast to the totally over the top Lucky and Quick. I enjoyed the buddy relationship between the two gods and came to really like Quick.

As with all his previous works Martinez wraps everything up neatly and leaves room for a sequel if he ever wants to revisit the concept. Highly recommended and has me anticipating Chasing the Moon, his 7th novel, due out in May of this year.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Side Jobs



Anyone who has read this blog for any time knows that I'm a fan of Jim Butcher's Wizard for Hire Harry Dresden.

Side Jobs is a collection of short stories that Butcher wrote about Harry Dresden and Co between 2002 and 2010. Two of the stories, the first (A Restoration of Faith) and the last (Aftermath) have never before been published. The stories are presented in chronological order. A Restoration of Faith was the first ever Harry Dresden story that Jim Butcher wrote and it shows, he was still developing the character and the world at this stage. Most of the stories were done for various anthologies and there's a short introduction from the author explaining what he wrote it for and where his head was at when he did.

As the stories progress readers get to see the evolution of Harry and get to spend time with his friends, allies and enemies as they came into the series. Two of the stories: Backup and Aftermath, are not told from Harry's point of view. Harry's half brother; White Court vampire (it's complicated) Thomas is the central character in Backup and Harry's friend and sparring partner feisty little Chicago cop Karrin Murphy is the focus of Aftermath. I felt there was mixed success with these two stories. Thomas as the point of view character didn't really work for me, but I did enjoy seeing things as Murphy did with her front and centre. That probably has a lot to do with Murphy being one of my favourites from the series and me being rather so so about Thomas.

The collection would an excellent jumping off point to introduce someone to the series, as most of the stories are self contained and not very spoilery. The one exception is Aftermath which takes place after the most recently published book of the Dresden Files; Changes, and does have some minor spoilers for that entry, which ended on a cliffhanger. For the most part the stories have a lighter hearted feel than the books and it's nice to see Harry kicking back and enjoying life with his friends. Any fan of the series will also enjoy the collection as it's a chance to spend more time with Harry and learn something about him and the wide and varied group of people with whom he associates.

There's a brief exchange between Harry and Murphy in Something Borrowed which captures some of the things I like so much about the books, Harry's outlook and the relationship between he and Murphy:

"Feel like saving the day?"
Her eyes sparkled, but she kept her tone bored "On the weekend? Sounds too much like work."
We started from the apartment together. "I'll pay you in doughnuts."
"Dresden, you pig. That cop-doughnut thing is a vicious stereoptype."
"Doughnuts with little pink sprinkles." I said.
"Professional profiling is just as bad as racial profiling."
I nodded. "Yeah. But I know you want the little pink sprinkles."
"That isn't the point," she said loftily, and we got into her car.


If you're a new fan this is a good one to dip your toes in the water with and if you're an existing one you're gonna love Side Jobs.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gardens of the Moon



To be considered a serious SFF fan these days it appears that there are a handful of ‘must read’ series. One such series is Steven Erikson’s massive Malazan Books of the Fallen. I’d been meaning to read the first Malazan book; Gardens of the Moon, for some time, but had held off for a couple of reasons. One it was a work in progress, believed to eventually complete at 10 books, having been burned by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (the author passed away before he could complete the series and it is being finished by Brandon Sanderson) and George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (Martin is still alive, but the series shows no sign of being completed any time soon, the 5th volume has been coming since 2005) I was reluctant to pick up another long running incomplete series. The other reason was that the concept had failed to really grab me each time I picked it up, and had a look at it.

It popping up on the list as the last of the E’s when it did was pretty good timing. The 10th Malazan book; The Crippled God, came out earlier this year, so I wouldn’t be forced into a wait between volumes.

Gardens of the Moon does require some commitment from the reader. There’s no real coherent storyline in the first volume, it’s largely about participants in a never ending war for control of the continent of Genabackis. These fighters are not only soldiers, citizens and rulers, some of them are all powerful Gods who have chosen to walk amongst men. For instance my feelings towards Erikson’s beloved Bridgeburners changed multiple times throughout the book. They vaccilated between being on the right side and the wrong side depending on whose story you were reading.

Like a growing number of recent epics Gardens of the Moon is rather noirish in feel. I often felt like none of the action took place in daylight. By the end of the book the reader has seen a lot and read a lot, but has only scratched the surface of Erikson’s gargantuan creation. It’s not surprising to learn that when he and friend and co creator Ian Cameron Esslemont hawked the concept around as a TV show or movie they were told that it was simply too grand in scale for them to even contemplate. This is largely why it became a series of books and not a purely visual spectacle.

Two things tended to stand out to me. One was the similarity between Erikson’s band of hard bitten soldiers and mages; The Bridgeburners and Glen Cook’s company of mercenaries; The Black Company, in the series of the same name. Erikson admits to being a fan of Cook’s and it shows in Gardens of the Moon. The Bridgeburners and the Black Company kept putting me in mind of each other, right down to the nicknames they gave their members. At times I felt as if the Bridgeburners hard bitten sergeant; Whiskeyjack was channelling the Black Company’s captain; Croaker. Erikson and Esslemont were both keen gamers and that’s how they came up with the concept, this too is obvious, with some passages reading as if they were right out of game play.

Despite the feeling that this was 700 pages of setup I still felt strangely compelled to keep reading, and while there isn’t always a lot of action, at other times the action is almost overwhelming. The reader can get lost with the sheer cast of thousands that Erikson has chosen to populate his creation, and as he doesn’t write linearly it can become confusing, which is why despite it’s length the reader cannot afford to skim. I found it hard to connect to any of the characters while reading the book and thought that they may be rather two dimensional. Reflecting on it afterwards I found myself finding that they had layers I hadn’t initially picked up on. I did develop some affection for two of the leads; the mysterious and quite often amusing Kruppe, who refers to himself in the third person and narrates his own action, and the young and somewhat na├»ve thief Crokus.

Despite it’s flaws, and Gardens of the Moon is most definitely a flawed book, it has me intrigued and I know that in the not too distant future I’m going to pick up the equally thick Deadhouse Gates and keep following Steven Erikson’s vision.