Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hard Magic by Larry Correia

I'd had Larry Correia's Hard Magic the first book of the Grimnoir Chronicles on Mt Toberead for a while, but only just now got around to picking it up.

Larry Correia is best known for his Monster Hunter series (a collection of three of them is also somewhere on that mountain), and this is a newer addition to his growing bibliography.

I think the name of the series as a whole is a little misleading. It literally means grimdark, but I didn't see it as being part of that new subgenre, it was much lighter and far more fun.

I've seen it classified as steampunk, but I can only think that the presence of dirigibles as a major form of transportation is why people would slot Hard Magic in there. It's a mix of alternate history and urban fantasy and has a  noirish feel to it in terms of when and where it is set.

It's the 1930's in the US and many members of the world's population have become Actives. An Active is someone with a type of power that makes them something more than normal. Almost superhuman. There's a rather useful glossary in the back of Hard Magic that goes into the various Actives and their powers. It's not specified exactly when Actives started to manifest, but there is an excerpt from a speech given by Abraham Lincoln that seems to suggest it started to happen in the latter half of the 19th century.

I had an issue with the blurb on the back of this book. It states that one of the main characters; Jake Sullivan (a powerful Active known as  Heavy, it means he can manipulate or Spike gravity) is a private eye. If he was it isn't shown in the book. Jake's history seemed to suggest that after he returned from WW I he got himself into some legal difficulty and was imprisoned. At the start of Hard Magic he is working with the Feds to apprehend Active criminals in order to remain out of jail. The cover kind of plays up the private eye idea, too. In saying that it's one of Baen's rather more subdued covers.

The second major character is Faye. A young Active who can Travel or teleport. She started life as a refugee from Oklahoma (one of the book's departures from our history). Because the bad guys of this one; a Japanese consortium known as the Imperium, who have designs on world domination, have gone after people close to Jake and Faye, the two find themselves teaming up with an order of Actives known as the Grimnoir Knights to battle the Imperium.

Conceptually Hard Magic shares a bit with Myke Cole's Shadow Ops series, although I think Correia's world is better built and makes more sense. The powers are more fun and the characters themselves are stronger and more consistent.

I really warmed to Faye, her gruff and reluctant mentor Lance and Heinrich, the German Fade with the tragic past. I found it hard to do the same with Jake. He plays the hard as nails noir hero and his slang spouting exterior is often at odds with his well read highly intelligent interior.

The inclusion or mention of real people is both a nice touch and adds depth to the alternate 1930's that Correia has built for this series.

It's a really good old fashioned pulp style adventure story with a dash of fantasy added in. Definitely recommended and I'll be getting to the sequel: Spellbound, sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bitter Blood by Rachel Caine

At book 13 of a planned 15 book series I'm definitely in the home stretch of Rachel Caine's Morganville Vampires with Bitter Blood.

The previous book in the series (Black Dawn) had a lot going on and while it wrapped up the draug storyline it also had a number of loose ends that needed to be tied up. Bitter Blood was the pay off for some of those.

Bitter Blood has a lot of issues to cover and I feel it may have had more story lines than it really needed. We had to deal with the growing animosity between Morganville's vampire and human populations. The fall out from the marriage between vampire Michael Glass and his human girlfriend Eve Rosser. The growing instability of the computer that controls a lot of Morganville's infrastructure because of the brain of the former vampire that controls it; Frank Collins. The fact that unbeknownst to Morganville founder Amelie, her evil sister Naomi is still alive and capable of controlling both humans and vampires alike to to do her bidding.  There's also the relationship between Claire Danvers and Shane Collins, which was damaged at the end of Black Dawn. The deaths of Morganville mayor Richard Morrell and teenage seer Miranda also had to be dealt with.

As if all that weren't enough a couple of side stories came into this one: the crew of a ghost hunting reality TV show blow into town and there's a race to see who can become the new mayor. In one of Claire's sillier moments she actually got her sworn enemy mean girl Monica Morrell to run for mayor. Myrnin's pet spider Bob would have been a better candidate. In fact I think more people would have voted for Bob than Monica.

The technique of using various characters to narrate the book, rather than all from Claire's third person perspective, continues, although the amount of narrators is cut down (I think Black Dawn suffers from a bit of overload on that front) and most of it is seen from Claire's eyes.

With all this happening the mayor storyline, the reality show and even Miranda to a lesser extent kind of fell by the wayside. I think Bitter Blood is actually the longest Morganville book thus far and dropping a storyline or two may have tightened it up and improved it was a whole. It was the first time through the series I've ever found myself wishing one part of the story would be resolved so I could move onto something more interesting.

One thing Rachel Caine has done very well at various times throughout the series is draw realistic and frightening scenes of bullying or mob mentality. This happens again when Eve suffers at beating at the hands of a hate and fear filled gang of vampire hating teens. What makes this scarier than an attack by a vampire is that it is very real. Both Eve and her attackers are human, the injuries she suffers make sense (she wound up having her appendix removed due to the attack) and you could imagine this happening in real life.

I felt the escape from the cage scene stretched credibility to breaking point. I fail to see how a pair of shoelaces and the metal rod from a hairband can actually bend the metal bars of a cage constructed to hold vampires enough that it's occupants can escape. As my wife commented: "they 'MacGyvered' it." I guess it's similar to the fairly flimsy equipment cage in Buffy the Vampire Slayer being able to hold werewolves and vampires when they wanted it to and other times not being sturdy enough to do this, depending on what the storyline called for. It's a minor nit to pick, but it just bugged me.

The ramifications for the actions taken in Bitter Blood (Claire is basically ordered by Amelie to go study at MIT, Michael and Eve's relationship is badly damaged, Oliver is exiled) will resonate through book 14 (Fall of Night) and are setting the blocks for the series final end in book 15.

Although I did feel that certain things in Bitter Blood 'jumped the shark' I'm pretty hooked on these and there's not long to go, so I will see it through to the end and don't think I'll have too many regrets about it. It's largely been a fun ride thus far.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis

Necessary Evil is the final book of Ian Tregillis' Milkweed triptych. The second book of this (The Coldest War) absolutely blew me away.

In Necessary Evil, the story is taken from an alternate 1963, largely created by the events in the first book (Bitter Seeds) back to where it began in a war torn world in 1940. Through the machinations of the former Reichsbehorde seer Gretel, British secret service agent Raybould Marsh finds himself back in time, with the chance to save the world and at the same time change his own life and ensure the survival of his infant daughter; Agnes.

Because we've got two Marsh's in the one time Ian Tregillis had to distinguish between the two without always using 1963 Marsh's disfigurement as a description. I think he pulled off something quite clever to do this. 1940's Marsh is written in third person and 1963 Marsh is written in first. It was interesting to see things from his viewpoint as intimately as we did and it gave the character new levels and depth.

The other thing that really added to the story for me were the occasional interludes from Gretel where we got to see how deep her obsession with Marsh went and how she had been barely hanging onto sanity for most of her life. Although these sections are small, they must have been incredibly difficult to write, because Gretel often follows two or three possible timelines and outcomes before arriving at the one that suits her.

The planning to write this triptych is mind bending. He plays with the course of World War Two, this creates an alternate 1960's, then he goes back to the '40's and tries to steer the whole thing back on course to produce the outcome we all knew about.

Aside from a few instances where Ian Tregillis (an American) struggled with getting the 1940's British vernacular right (no Brit would use the phrase 'rogered the pooch') overall he got the tone spot on, and I couldn't fault it.

He drew me in so completely to the characters that I nearly threw the book across the room at one point where I thought some of them were stepping into one of Gretel's many traps.

Milkweed as a whole is superlative story telling and Necessary Evil is the perfect end for it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Black Dawn by Rachel Caine

Black Dawn is the twelfth book of Rachel Caine's highly successful YA vampire series Morganville Vampires. I have to say that these are highly addictive. I started reading them late last year and have ripped through the last few in record time for me. I don't generally read things like this back to back, but I've made an exception with the Morganvilles, reading chunks of them before bed each evening (yes, in hindsight reading a vampire book just before trying to sleep is probably not the best plan). I had to go straight onto to Black Dawn because the previous instalment (Last Breath) was left on a pretty sizeable cliff.

Black Dawn is probably the most all action, all the time book in the series since Carpe Corpus in the middle of the Bishop storyline. In Last Breath Rachel Caine introduced the concept of the draug, a water affiliate vampire that is anathema to their land bound cousins. Before going on here I have to say that the concept of the draug is one of the coolest and newest ideas I've seen for a long time in vampire fiction, especially what could probably be termed as YA paranormal.

With the town under lockdown because of the invasion of the draugs, and Amelie infected and close to death it's up to Claire and her friends and allies to come up with a way to save the town and themselves in doing so.

As she had in Last Breath Rachel Caine continues the multiple PoV concept, expanding her first person cast, and continuing to write Claire in third person. I don't think she gets it right all the time. She's pretty down with Claire's gang, and she's been doing Shane for the last two books anyway, but the vampires' Oliver and Amelie, in particular just don't sound right.

Shane's dream sequence when he is held captive by the draug was particularly moving and effective, very well written. You're well into the chapter before you realise exactly what is happening here. Hats off to the author for that one.

This book also ends of the draug storyline, and while you're never really overly worried about the leads, some of the peripherals do get killed. Not many YA authors will do that, so I was both shocked and impressed, not to mention sad, because a personal favourite didn't make it.

The books have grown progressively darker as the characters have matured and situation altered, but it was dialled up in Black Dawn. It may have reached a peak, although the ending does tend to indicate that maybe this is not the case and there is more misery ahead for Morganville.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I have to admit to being a little wary of Erin Morgenstern's debut The Night Circus. It came out in 2011 and created a huge amount of buzz. I try not to listen to hype, because I often find that if the work can't live up to the words spoken and written about it then I wind up disappointed and that's really not fair to the author.

We did have a copy of it, but it was somewhere on Mt Toberead. Then it was chosen as May's book of the month by Fantasy Faction. So I picked it up and started reading.

This review could well have consisted of 'Go and read this, it is brilliant!' because those were my thoughts after finishing The Night Circus.

I could use a lot of adjectives, other people have: astounding, brilliant, outstanding, beautiful, lush, etc... They all apply. Mesmeric is the one I like the most, though. That's what The Night Circus does, it entrances you and draws you into it's tents filled with wonder and beauty.

The idea of the circus itself is intriguing and The Night Circus is everything that a circus should be, a place that is ever changing, ever moving, magical and mysterious.

Even the way it's written is different, and I don't use that word lightly. For a debut author Erin Morgenstern is both remarkably talented and extremely brave. The entire narrative is third person, present tense. This is really hard to do, and do well. Experienced and successful authors fear to try it, and with good reason. If it's not done well it is awful to read. Not with Morgenstern's The Night Circus, it's not even noticeable, and it adds to the strangeness and the hypnotic quality of the tale.

Then there are the timeshifts.  Nearly every short chapter seems to take place in a different place and a different time. The narrative winds in and out of time over thirty years. This can be frustrating in other books, but not in The Night Circus. I felt the interlocking stories as they wove through that thirty year time period were perfectly placed and they gave the story a sense of history and depth.

The story largely concerns itself with a bet made between two magicians of who can produce the best practitioner of the art. It is those two that the readers follow: Celia and Marco. There are other side stories which are every bit as enchanting and interesting.

At times it seems like not a lot happens, and it is probably true, but you keep reading on the for the descriptions and the wonder that Morgenstern can evoke from her pages. The Night Circus is a feast for the senses of the mind.

She has strong, if strange characters, too, from the tortured Celia and her horrible father; Hector, to the mysterious tattooed Japanese contortionist Tsukiko, the tragic Tarot reader Isobel, the outsider Bailey, who wants to be part of the circus, the quirky twins Poppet and Widget with their performing kittens, the circuses owner Christopher Lefevre and Herr Thiessen and his incredible clocks. The only character that didn't really work for me was Marco. He seemed a little off at times, lacking in depth.

Get The Night Circus, read it and find out what all the fuss is about, you will not be sorry you did.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Last Breath by Rachel Caine

The events of Bite Club (the previous book in the series) wrapped up the long running Bishop arc in this series, so Last Breath would be the start of a new crisis in Morganville.

Initially that could be seen as the marriage of new vampire Michael Glass to his human girlfriend Eve. The engagement party pits the humans and the vampires against each other and when the head of Morganville's ruling vampire community hands down the edict that she will not permit the marriage to go ahead Eve slaps the French vampire's face. I actually thought Eve was rather lucky to get away with that. As Amelie herself said only two people had ever done that before, they were vampires and they were both dead.

Thoughts of impending nuptials were however driven away by the arrival of a messenger from Blacke. Blacke is a nearby town that appeared in Kiss of Death (the eighth book in the series). It is also ruled by vampires and the messenger carries a message from Amelie's Blacke based equivalent; Morley. It says one thing only: RUN.

Soon after vampires start going missing and Claire Danvers notices a mysterious newcomer. It transpires that the reason Amelie set up a vampire friendly town in Morganville wasn't just because it was out of the way, it had to do with it being in an arid environment. Apparently what vampires fear most are the draug. In this particular mythology the draug are water based vampires. Rachel Caine ties mermaids and sirens into this (she doesn't mention the nixies, the poor nixies are always forgotten about). A draug or draugr is from Norse mythology and they are a kind of vampire. The sea-draugr definitely do have an affinity with water, hence the name.

The land vampires have fought the draugr before and failed, so they decide to run. It is Claire and her friends who convince them that the humans and vampires of Morganville should stand and fight for their town.

One very interesting thing happens in this installment. Claire dies. One of the draugr, a leader called Magnus, snaps her neck. She spends time as a ghost (I have the distinct impression the Last Breath of the title is Claire's) and meets Hiram Glass, one of Michael's ancestors, largely the reason the house itself is alive and has power, but he was a very nasty old ghost. Myrnin does manage to restore Claire to her body again. It didn't really make a lot of sense, but I find with books like the Morganvilles it's probably best not to dwell too long on the logic behind some of the 'science'.

Because Claire is 'dead' for a good part of the narrative and also stuck in the house (she spends a lot of it hiding from Hiram in the attic), she can't always be where the action is. Rachel Caine used this technique in Bite Club to tell the story from Shane's point of view and she does it again in Last Breath. This time she actually included an explanatory note at the start of the book to let readers know that characters other than Claire would tell some of the story and this could be recognised by the characters name at the start of the chapter. I thought that was a bit of overkill, but maybe there were complaints that she kind of sprung the Shane thing on them. I also have to keep in mind that Morganville's target audience is between 13 and 20.

I do find it interesting that Claire's point of view is third person, but the other characters are all first person. Aside from Claire, the author seems to have the best handle on Shane. The other characters, especially Amelie, don't have very convincing voices.

Last Breath ends on a cliffhanger and is clearly the beginning of a new story arc. It's quite a fun entry. Kiss of Death remains my favourite, but this one sets up a very juicy continuation that promises plenty of action.