Friday, February 22, 2013

Dangerous Gifts by Gaie Sebold

Last year I read a debut from Gaie Sebold. That book was Babylon Steel. It was great fun with solid world building and I looked very much forward to the sequel, which is Dangerous Gifts.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Babylon Steel was the portal city of Scalentine with it's many exotic characters. Another highly enjoyable part of Babylon Steel was the Red Lantern; the brothel that Babylon owns and runs, with it's orc cook Flower and top drawing worker; the fey Laney, as well as the duo of Cruel and Unusual who cater for those who want something a little different. There was also the developing relationship between Babylon and the were chief of police Hargur Bitternut.

The parts of Dangerous Gifts that did take place in Scalentine and dealt with the Red Lantern and it's staff were the strongest and most enjoyable sections of the book. Unfortunately they were too brief for my liking.

Most of the story deals with Babylon taking on a job body guarding Enthemmerlee; a religious figure of some importance to the Ikinchli (a race of oppressed reptilian creatures). Enthemmerlee was an important part of Babylon Steel, so that made sense that she would feature heavily in the follow up.

I didn't buy a lot of the plot and the tensions between the races of the Gudain and the Ikinchli were I felt a little too heavy handed. It also reminded me a lot of the relationship between the Narn and the Centauri in Babylon 5.

A lot of the book didn't seem to go anywhere and because Bitternut wasn't there a lot of the time I had trouble buying the closeness of he and Babylon's relationship.

The character of the dangerous and unstable wizard Mokraine was a good one though.

I think there's still more scope for Babylon Steel as a series and this was just the rough second book. If it focusses more on Scalentine and tightens the plot up a bit there's some highly entertaining future adventures for Babylon. The first book had a lot of humour and there were opportunities in Dangerous Gifts that simply weren't explored.

I'd advise anyone who was interested to start with Babylon Steel to get a real idea of the series' potential and I intend to stick with it if there is a third book, because there is more there than Dangerous Gifts really brings to the table.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Enchanter's End Game by David Eddings

Finally! I think I started rereading this series two years ago. Why would a relatively short, simply written series of books take me, generally a quick reader, so long to get through? Part of it was the way I chose to read it. I decided to break up entries in The Belgariad with other reading and after a few books I just kept a copy by the bed to read a bit of a night before turning in. I didn't read every night, either. The other thing was that it is just so poorly written that I had problems forcing myself to read bits of it.

The first book in The Belgariad (Pawn of Prophecy) is, while cliched and simplistic, a relatively light hearted and fun read. It was somewhere in Magician's Gambit (the 3rd book) that things started to go badly wrong and the deficiencies of David Eddings as a writer became painfully obvious.

I struggled with Castle of Wizardry and things did not improve in Enchanter's End Game. Somewhere along the line Ce'Nedra turned from a bratty and self centred princess into a military genius and a female commander to rival Joan of Arc (although she never rode into battle herself). There was no bridge or explanation for this transformation. It just happened, and as Eddings so often asked his readers to do, we had to suspend disbelief and accept it.

Most of the book concerned itself with the tedium of the enormous host the charismatic Ce'Nedra had assembled, gearing itself for a huge battle. The commanders sat around and squabbled with each other, and readers were supposed to be amused by the differences between the various races and their leaders insults at each other. We were also supposed to be amazed by how 'ingeniously' they solved logistical problems by applying common sense to them. Seriously it's a wonder that these people ever even discovered fire, let alone progress to a pseudo medieval society.

The three most interesting characters in the whole mess: Garion, Belgarath and Silk, appear infrequently and are mainly moving into position for the big takedown of the demi God Torak at the book's climax.

After Torak is taken out, fairly easily considering how much effort went into just getting to confront him in the first place. The book goes on for about 40 pages too long as the author goes about dotting his i's and crossing his t's so he can wrap everything up neatly and still leave it open ended enough that he could continue the story if he were so minded. He also had to resurrect a character in a totally unbelievable manner, because it just wouldn't be an Eddings story if one of the major characters could do so much as stub their toe and sustain a bruise, let alone actually die.

When I started this I believe I advised people that they should read the series if only as an exercise to see how far the genre has come since The Belgariad. I'd like to take that back. If you're young or haven't read much fantasy and want an easy going entry into the field that won't tax your mind this is probably okay, but if you get past the first book and find it too lightweight you're really not missing much if you decide to skip the rest and move onto other authors and generally much better written works.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Back to the challenge! I was going to start this again with Abraham Merrit's The Ship of Ishtar, but I really didn't get very far into that book. Just because something is old does not necessarily make it a Must-Read. It was so poorly written that I gave up.

Now with that experience fresh in my mind and the fact that the last time I tried to read China Mieville it was Embassytown and I couldn't finish that either, because I just couldn't connect with the characters. Probably another piece of evidence that in general science fiction and I don't seem to get along, I approached Perdido Street Station cautiously.

This was a great book! I can see why Mieville has the reputation he does in the field. People tend to regard China Mieville as the high priest of New Weird and his work gets classified that way. I'm not sure what New Weird is and while what Mieville writes about is weird, it crosses genres and defies classification. There are all sorts of elements from various types of fiction clashing in Perdido Street Station and they all come together in a highly pleasing mix.

It's hard not to be drawn into Mieville's vision, from the expansive and intricate world building, his new and unusual races, also exceptionally well thought out and realised, to the strong multi layered very real characters he describes. There's suspense, action, adventure, philosophy and so much more in Perdido Street Station.

It's a true masterpiece of the fantasy genre and should be read by all lovers of fantasy and become a classic for many years to come.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fables 18 - Cubs in Toyland

As I said in my review of Fables 17 - Inherit the Wind I felt that there wasn't a lot of substance or content to that collection. Right from the start I thought one of those problems wasn't there in Fables 18 - Cubs in Toyland. Maybe it's my imagination, but it looked a good deal thicker than it's predecessor.

The rest of the story threads (Bufkin in Oz, Beast and Beauty's child, even what Dark's apprentice Mrs Spratt is plotting) took a back story to what was happening with Bigby and Snow's cubs.

One of the cubs; Winter, has been chosen as her grandfather: The North Wind's successor. That leaves Snow at home with the others while Bigby tries to help his daughter deal with her new life and powers.

Most of the kids take Winter's elevation in their stride, all except for Therese, who is the most like her mother in manner, if not necessarily appearance and Darien, who is most like his father. Therese is the 'princess' of the family, why wasn't she chosen to be a 'queen' in the way Winter was, and Darien is the adventurer, the hero, surely he should have inherited the mantle of The North Wind?

Therese listens to a toy tugboat that was a present at Christmas. Toys in the Fableverse can talk and frequently do, but this one shouldn't have, however it did to Therese. Feeling left out and let down Therese takes the boat on a journey and finds herself in the world of damaged toys. They have chosen Therese to be their Queen and restore them to how they were before they were damaged. Therese has always wanted to be a Queen, but now she finds out that being a Queen in a broken land isn't quite what she wanted, not to mention that most of her subjects as well as being damaged are quite possibly evil.

Darien is the one who sees Therese go off on her own and follows her. He finds that some of his own toys are allies where Therese has gone. Of particular use will be the mechanical tiger Lord Mountbatten. There is a battle between Therese's subjects, who want to hang on to her at any cost, and Darien and his allies who want her to come back home.

It will eventually come down to one of the cubs making a sacrifice for the other. Suffice to say it is heartbreaking and brilliantly written by Willingham and pictured by Mark Buckingham, who just never misses a beat illustrating Bill Willingham's words.

I didn't see the ending coming and it was quite a shock. It will have repercussions for the rest of the Fables going forward.

Also included are a two part story about Bigby's past written by his son Ambrose. It was a clever story and it had a nice twist at the ending. Although Mark Buckingham is really the only guy who can ever do Fables artwork properly Gene Ha does a good job in The Destiny Game.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Marvel Comics the Untold Story by Sean Howe

One of my rare non fiction reviews. This one is probably going to be a bit different, mainly because of my personal connection to a lot of the work in the book.

I've always liked comics. I first remember becoming attracted to superhero comics of the type Marvel produced via some fairly crudely done cartoons that used to screen here on TV in the mornings before school. There was the Spiderman show (still has one of the best theme songs ever: spins a web any size, catches thieves just like flies) they also did Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man (on that note I'm pleased to see that the upcoming Iron Man 3 film actually uses the villain from those cartoons; The Mandarin). For some reason I never really looked at the comics in the local newsagent, I think I was too busy looking at the books. Then this second had store opened up. I swear to God the guy's name was Stan, he even looked a bit like Stan Lee. He had boxes of comics in this place. He had a two for one deal happening. Give him two and he'd give you one back. I had a bunch of comics that I got from a friend who had to get rid of them when his family moved, so I swapped them with Stan.

For some reason, maybe it was the influence of those cartoons, I always preferred Marvel comics to DC. Maybe it was the patter of Spiderman or the fact that the Marvel characters always seemed more real and were just more fun than those of the Distinguished Competitor. There was just something about Marvel that always appealed to me more than DC.

Fast forward a few years and I see this magazine called Howard the Duck. I remembered an advert for Howard in the Kiss comic (come on EVERYONE bought that when it came out) and I picked the magazine up. It was pretty funny and I liked it. It got cancelled a few issues after that, but I was hooked.

I became a bona fide collector not that long after reading that magazine, and probably remained one for the next ten to fifteen years. I'm not sure what my collection topped out at when I finally offloaded them all, but I estimate it would have been close to if not in excess of 1,000.

The back story of the company has always interested me. Sean Howe has been extensive in researching the early years. I knew most of it, but it put the story of Martin Goodman and Timely comics and how his cousin aspiring novelist Stanley Lieberman came to work for the line into perspective.

The story about Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and how it very nearly destroyed the comics industry is also always worth a read, if only to marvel at how much influence Wertham's fairly hysterical publication had on culture at the time. Interestingly Geoffrey Wagner's Parade of Pleasure rarely gets mentioned, but it helped Seduction of the Innocent get the now notorious Comics Code established.

Where the book really got interesting for me was when it moved into the 70's and early 80's, because this was when I started to get interesting and collect the books. So many of the names jumped out at me and I remembered opening up the new issue of whatever title and seeing those names credited with creating what I was reading.

I clearly remember the Shooter Years (when Jim Shooter was the head honcho at Marvel) and the stories that I and other collectors swapped about Big Bad Jim. It was fascinating to see the truth behind some of the rumours and then on other occasions realise how on the money that we; a bunch of fanboys in Australia where we got the books weeks to months after they first hit the streets in the US, often were.

I felt that when the book moved into the corporate 90's and 2000's that it lost a little. The narrative became more about the corporate wheeling and dealing than the books and the creators, and that didn't really interest me, it may have also been that I was pretty much out of the mainstream loop by this stage, and while I still visited a local comic store regularly I tended to gravitate more to independents like Dave Sim's Cerebus or Jeff Smith's Bone, and I only occasionally dipped into a mainstream title if it interested me for some reason or other.

It is a good exercise for anyone interested in the medium to contrast where Marvel and the guy who's been associated with the company almost since it's start and been it's public face since the early 1960's when he and friend and co creator Jack Kirby rejuvenated a failing industry with their ideas and attitude Stan Lee, was and where it is now. It's also a sobering thing to wander into a comics shop, think about some of the titles you've just read about and then look at what is on the shelf now. Wolverine and the X-Men (what? He's an X-Man, not THE X-Men. I love him and understand how popular he is, but the idea is that he is part of a team, not the entire team. It's almost like the rest of them are just his sidekicks now) and the Superior Spiderman. I wonder what it is about that particular title that makes it so much better than all the other ones that bear the name Spiderman on them? But I digress and I'm sounding like a grumpy former collector here.

Sean Howe focussed a lot on Howard the Duck and his creator Steve Gerber. I liked this, because as I have said Howard is what drew me to the world of the collector really, but to be honest the book was never that successful and very few people really understood what Gerber was about and he didn't ever achieve the sort of success that made him the thorn he appeared be in Marvel's side almost from the time he was removed from doing Howard's book back in it's original four colour days.

Maybe because I gravitated into the market, but there was very little mention of the independent market and the impact that had on the big two's sales. Maybe it genuinely wasn't that much, but now if you look at the racks there are as many independents as there are large company publications at least there is where I browse the racks. Online publishing could have also been spoken about more, but maybe it's a bit early for that, but the impact of the internet on the industry and the collector could certainly have been dealt with at more length, it was largely a footnote.

Those issues aside this a fantastic read for anyone who has more than a passing interest in comics, and I think if handled right it would make a great film along the lines of The Social Network. There is every bit as much drama and unbelievability off the page as there ever has been on it, even if the heroes behind the scenes don't wear flashy costumes and stage battles on the street using super powers.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole

Early in 2012 former soldier Myke Cole debuted with Shadow Ops: Control Point. This was a fantastic debut that blended military SF with fantasy, gave us some characters with powers that came straight out of a comic book and threw in some fantastic action scenes that read like a big budget action film.

A lot was expected of the follow up. Myke Cole is a more assured writer the second time around, and I didn't get some of the uneveness of character that was one of my criticisms of Control Point. I can't confess to be quite as enamoured of the new book's central character Colonel Alan Bookbinder as many, but then I do agree with those reviewers that the first book's central character Oscar Britton could be intensely annoying at times as well.

Myke Cole took a risk I felt with Fortress Frontier in structuring the book the way he did. It picks up with Bookbinder going about his day to day duties as a Colonel at the Pentagon until a routine physical check up uncovers the possibility that he may be latent and throws his life into disaray taking him away from the most important thing in his life: his family.

Where's the risk here? Fortress Frontier actually overlaps the end of Control Point. When Bookbinder arrives at the Source, the magical otherworld that the US military are trying to exploit, I became a little confused because characters I knew were in different situations at the end of Control Point weren't in those situations.

Because there's probably a need to update the audience with what happened to Oscar Britton there's a little bit of a jarring shift when action goes from Bookbinder to Britton all of a sudden. The book, which is highly readable, could have been ever smoother if the inevitable alliance between the two men had been left until the next book. Bookbinder is an interesting character with a fascinating power and could have carried this second installment all on his own.

I said earlier Bookbinder wasn't really someone I liked and I stand by that, he was a real sad sack. Continually bemoaning his lot in life, unsure of himself and whether or not he should be a soldier. Woe is me! He eventually recovered, but it was rather tedious there for a while.

The introduction of the naga; an Indian myth. was a real master stroke and that section held my interest and I wouldn't have minded seeing a lot more about them. There's a description of the game of cricket at the Indian encampment. I like cricket. I didn't really appreciate Cole's description of it. The description of the game seemed to indicate that most wickets fall as the result of runouts. I don't know how many games of cricket Myke Cole has seen, I suspect not many, because caught or bowled is by far the most common form of dismissal. Run outs are comparatively rare. A shame he didn't speak to someone who clearly knew about the game before including it.

The world building, as with the first novel, was excellent and I really like the little 'real news' snippets that start each chapter. I mentioned The X-Men in my review of the first book, and I'm going to do it again here, because Bookbinder's 'leeching' power reminded me very much of The X-Men's conflicted heroine Rogue, who has a similar ability.

There's still a lot of scope here and my annoyance with the cricket notwithstanding I look forward to the 3rd book in this highly entertaining series.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Merchant of Dreams by Anne Lyle

I thoroughly enjoyed Anne Lyle's debut and the first book of her Night's Masque trilogy The Alchemist of Souls, so it's sequel The Merchant of Dreams was a must buy for me when I saw it.

It continues to follow the fortunes of swordsman Mal Catlyn, his actor turned valet Coby Hendricks and that of the otherworldly skraylings from the New World, a race to which Mal and his family are tied.

The Merchant of Dreams takes readers from England to Venice and brings us face to face with Mal's mysterious older brother Charles and further explains the importance of the skraylings to not only Mal and his family, but to the world at large.

Initially the book flowed more smoothly than it's predecessor because the set up wasn't required. Readers knew about the skraylings, although there was far more to be explained, and still is, about their nature. We also knew Mal and Coby, as well as the fact that Coby hides her sexuality (she's actually a girl, but for practical reasons disguised herself as a boy in The Alchemist of Souls) and that this is an alternate history, so occasionally events and people won't match up with accepted historical fact.

I liked that Anne Lyle had chosen to spread her wings and use the Italian city of Venice as her setting this time. I love the city of Venice and books set there are generally winners with me. I have to say Lyle did a great job, she really captured the exotic feel and look of the floating city.

After the initial set up the story held my interest, but I didn't feel it actually got anywhere. I guess this is book two of three and they generally leave things up in the air. At times it felt like a series of connected episodes though, rather than as part of a larger story.

In terms of characterisation I don't really believe Mal, he seems flat. The emotion is written, but it's never really felt by me. Coby on the other hand is an absolute delight. Her I can believe. I can feel her conflict at being forced out of her comfortable male persona and into women's clothing and role. I could understand how she didn't like this and didn't really know how to act when pushed into that unfamiliar role. I still struggle with Mal's friend Ned, he just isn't likeable to me, but he may not have a larger role in the story going forward.

There are tantalising glimpses of what may happen and where the story may go in the third and final volume: The Prince of Lies. I will be there, because despite my criticisms of The Merchant of Dreams it was an entertaining enough read and I'd like to see how it all resolves.