Monday, December 31, 2012

Lucky 13 in 2012

Hello out there! It's end of another year and the beginning of a new one. Where did the time go. At the end of every year I look back at what I've read throughout the year and try to figure out what was, in my opinion, the best books of the year. This isn't scientific at all and in some ways it's not even all that critical, it is purely an assessment of what I had the most fun reading.

For anyone who hasn't seen Travels Through Iest do this in the past I'll provide a quick rundown of how I work. When I look at my favourite reads of the year I don't confine myself to books released in the calendar year. They may have been new releases, but they can also be things I happened to discover for the first time. There's also two sections. The main one is books I happened to pick and read for whatever reason, the secondary section is for m favourite book in the 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels challenge that I am still working my way through. Oh there's no real order to this. The final book, the one with the number 1 next to it was what I enjoyed the most, but the others are not in any particular order.

A little note before I get started. I read a lot of books this year. The final count was 106, I can't ever remember reading that many books in the one year before. As a result the list this year is bigger than it's been in the past. The title says Lucky 13, there's 12 general books and 1 from the list.

Without further ado, what was Travels Through Iest reading and entertaining itself with in 2012?

12) Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch


What a great ride this one was. It's the first of Ben Aaronovitch's Folly series. There are three of them now and they all get better and better. A truly original urban fantasy that manages to tick all the boxes and just never lets up with surprising the reader. For reasons I don't totally understand this was released as Midnight Riot in the US and that's how I reviewed it, but other than the title and the cover (I prefer the UK one above) it's the same book. If you haven't already given this one a try, even if you're not really an urban fantasy reader, I would do so. You won't regret it.

11) Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire


I don't really go all fanboi about authors in general. I make an exception for Seanan McGuire. I just adore what she does, everything she does. Having said that Discount Armageddon stands above the rest of her work for me. It's pure urban fantasy and I believe it was the series (it's the first in the InCryptid series) that Seanan was put on this world to write. Please don't let the rather typical, but still totally gorgeous, urban fantasy cover put you off. It actually makes perfect sense when you read it. To give you some idea of what you're letting yourself in for with InCryptid: the main character Verity (that's her on the cover on her way to work) is a ballroom dance enthusiast who works as a cocktail waitress at a place called Fish and Strips, she's also a cryptozoologist. It's loads of fun and I haven't even mentioned the Aeslin Mice.

10) Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed


From the moment I started seeing press releases about Saladin Ahmed's debut novel I knew I was going to like it. I adore Arabian Nights themed fantasy, and there simply isn't enough of it around. I was also quite taken by Jason Chan's cover, although I know it's copped stick from some quarters for being too cheesy. Hey we can all use some cheese from time to time. Those that said nice things about Throne of the Crescent Moon were right. It's a thrill ride from go to whoa. It's rather like Harry Dresden in an Arabian Nights setting with Harry as a fat old man who has been almost beaten down by life. Doesn't it sound cool?

9) Anno Dracula by Kim Newman


I came to Kim Newman's amazing mashup fairly late, and wondered why I took so long to pick it up. A Victorian England controlled by Vlad the Impaler, who is Victoria's consort, and in the grip of terror from Jack the Ripper, who is going around killing vampires. Kim Newman threw everything at this one and it somehow worked. Seriously what is not to like about that scenario? Once I started I simply couldn't stop reading and despite it being a fairly thick book it flew by.

8) The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham


The first book in Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin series (The Dragon's Path) made my Best Of 2011 list last year. If anything The King's Blood is even better. Daniel Abraham has hit on something really special with this series, and I think it is the best in progress epic fantasy series going around (yes even over A Song of Ice and Fire which has been losing steam ever since A Storm of Swords, and drops down the rungs in my estimation as it seems increasingly unlikely that we'll ever see the end of it). Abraham's real strength is in character development and that is in evidence all throughout the first two books of The Dagger and the Coin. Geder Palliako is one of the most fascinating sociopaths I've encountered in a fantasy, and he's frighteningly believable.

7) Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig


Blackbirds was like a punch in the face. It's that raw and shocking. I wasn't exactly sure what I expected, and it probably wasn't the story of Miriam Black, a foul mouthed woman forced to live on the fringes of society because of the curse she carries; the ability to see a person's moment of death with physical contact. It's a deeply affecting story and wonderfully carried out. There's a dark humour that runs through Blackbirds and it alleviates the almost constant misery that surrounds Miriam. The sequel (Mockingbird) came out this year as well, and it is every bit as dark and visceral as it's predecessor. I also have to give a shoutout to Joey Hi Fi's arresting cover, which has my vote as cover of the year.

6) Among Others by Jo Walton


I probably never would have read Jo Walton's Among Others if it hadn't been nominated for the Hugo. I'm very glad I did. It's a difficult book to review and equally hard to classify. There are elements of it that make it fantasy, but it could just as easily find itself in the general or even literary fiction section of the bookshop. Not a lot really happens in Among Others, but you find yourself compulsively reading it all the same. It is first and foremost a book for by and about science fiction and fantasy books and fandom. It won the Hugo in 2012 and it was richly deserved, considering the competition Among Others was really 'the little book that could'.

5) Chime by Franny Billingsley


I read Chime by accident. My wife picked it up because it looked interesting and her praise of it convinced me to read it. It's classified as YA fantasy and I think it even won a YA word, but this haunting gothic romance is so much more than that. It mixes all sorts of elements and Franny Billingsley has a facility with words that I've only seen matched by Catherynne M. Valente. An absolute dream of a novel that everyone should at least consider.

4) John Dies at the End by David Wong


Since reading John Dies at the End I've discovered that it's been made into a film due for release in 2013, and it seems to have become a bit of a cult classic already. I only picked it up because the sequel (This Book is Full of Spiders) caught my eye. However I was very glad I did. It reads like something that could have been written by a combination of Stephen King, Douglas Adams and Ben Edlund fuelled by too little sleep and too much alcohol. The author breaks every rule in a how to write a novel guide, and it still hangs together and works. This one is going to go down as one of those once in a million accidental hits.

3) Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes


One of my rare forays into science fiction. I read it as part of the Book Club at Fantasy Faction, but my interest had been sparked by it's use in a couple of episodes of the TV show Person of Interest. This was a stunner of a book. There's very little science fiction in it, and that may even by why I liked it so much, but it's a great look at what science can do to a person and how it can either improve or completely ruin their lives. It's also a wonderful character study, written in a rather unique style and it unashamedly tugs on the heartstrings. It had me in tears by the tragic and inevitable end. So glad I gave myself the chance to read this.

2) The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente


I shouted at anyone who would listen about Catherynne M. Valente's first Fairyland book (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making), so I was very eager to get the sequel. It is, as expected, brilliant. It's got a darker edge than the first one and while it is still beautifully written it suffers a little by by comparison because it is not quite as whimsical and there's less of the unseen narrator, who is a great character in her own right. It is still well worth reading and fits neatly into the best books of the year, just not quite up the stratospheric heights set by it's predecessor.

So what's number 1? What could possibly top all of those? Travels Through Iest's best book of 2012 was...drumroll please....

1) Red Country by Joe Abercrombie


Yes, my favourite book of the year was, unsurprisingly, a Joe Abercrombie. Joe effortlessly makes this list every time he releases a book, but this is the first year he's topped it. I had a ball with Red Country, Joe Abercrombie's take on a classic western, set in a pre industrial revolution fantasy world. It's brilliantly done and any student, even a casual one like me, of the western genre, will find a lot of nods and plenty to enjoy in this one. For mine it's not quite as good as 2011's The Heroes, but still the most enjoyable and engaging thing I read in 2012. Old favourites return and new ones are introduced. It will be fascinating to see what Joe can do next, and hopefully Red Country can earn him that elusive Hugo nomination.

Now for the list. At times I struggle to do this. If anyone's read this blog they know about my problems with the list. There's some good stuff on it, but there's some stuff I really hate. 2012 was a good one for the list overall. I don't include work I've already read on this best of though, so I pick something I'm new to. This year it is:

Replay by Ken Grimwood


I wasn't really sure what to expect from Replay, it wasn't what I got. This book was brilliant. A life lived over and over, just trying to do the right thing. Trying to get it right, just once, a balance for the person or people going through it and for the world itself, most of whom are completely unaware what's happening. This one punched me right in the feels and I never saw the end coming at all.

So that's 2012 in books. I look forward to what 2013 can bring me.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder


After taking the plunge into Mark Hodder's wonderfully realised alternate history steampunk world with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack I was eager to see what else he could do with the concept in The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.

Readers are reunited with the explorer Sir Richard Burton and his assistant the poet Algernon Swinburne. They're every bit, maybe even more Holmes and Watson, as they were in the first book. Another character that pops into this one, which reinforces the connection with the famous detective and his assistant, is the father of Conan Doyle, it also explains where the author's fascination with fairies came from.

You don't have to have read The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack to enjoy The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, but it definitely helps. Hodder doesn't do a lot of exposition and not being aware of what was set in place in the first book may leave a reader a bit all at sea early.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is less self contained than The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. There are more madcap steampunk inventions and alterations of flora and fauna. The melding of the two (giant insect bodies forming enormous structures rather like trams or busses) was interesting and amusing.

The world is fleshed out more and readers get an idea of just how much the meddling of the time travelling scientist Edward Oxford (see The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack) has affected the world. Personally I think there are hints that if was different well before Oxford got involved, but he certainly changed it further and not necessarily for the better.

It's not exactly a cliffhanger ending, but it does definitely make you want to read on for The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, which is the third and final book in the trilogy and will somehow tie it all together.

I like the way Hodder has taken two footnote events in history: Spring Heeled Jack and the Tichborne Affair (at the heart of The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man) and woven them throughout his stories and made them remarkably plausible by using actual events and people in a familiar yet skewed setting.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Spirit War by Rachel Aaron


I read the first three Eli Monpress novels (The Spirit ThiefThe Spirit Rebellion and The Spirit Eater) early in 2011. I had hoped to read The Spirit War in mid 2011, but a publisher decision was made to delay the release and repackage the first three as an omnibus. The Spirit War was published in mid 2012 as a result of this.

It's kind of odd going back to Eli and his little gang of cohorts after nearly 2 years away. In some ways it is as if the author finished a large chapter in the cocky, vain thief's life with The Spirit Eater and then picked up a new story in The Spirit War.

Although Eli, the demonseed Nico as well as their occasional ally and rival Miranda Lyonette do appear in the early parts of the book, The Spirit War, especially the first half of it, is really the story of swordsman Josef Liechten. The prologue is actually an account of how he came to wield the world's greatest awakened blade The Heart of War.

It turns out that Josef is not simply a blade for hire as he appears to be. He is the runaway prince of the kingdom of Osera, and it's long past due that he go back home and make peace with his mother and sort the issue out once and for all.

Osera is an important strategic point in the long running ware against the Immortal Empress. If Osera falls then so does the rest of the world beyond it. For that reason the kingdom can't fall, the only person who can defend it is Josef and he won't be able to do that unless he has his friend and most beloved of the Shepherdess Benehime by his side.

To a large extent Josef's story and maybe even Nico's are wrapped up in The Spirit War. There are also some shocking revelations about Eli, and while the defence of Osera is dealt with in this book, there is a cliffhanger ending concerning Eli and that will ensure that I keep on reading for the series' finale Spirit's End.

These books are great fun and while they do have some dark moments, overall the touch is kept suitably light. There was less interaction with the spirits this time and I've always liked those moments, so hopefully they'll come back in Spirit's End. On the other hand I really enjoy Miranda's interaction with her ghosthound Gin, and we did get plenty of that.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan



A Crown of Swords could have also been subtitled Searching for a Bowl, because that’s really what this one was about, although the ‘bowl searchers’ (Nynaeve, Elayne, Mat and peripherally Aviendha) don’t show up until about a third of the way in.

Jordan continues to belabour points that he may have somehow not hammered into readers heads yet, and he seems obsessed with interior design. I do wonder if he was a frustrated home renovator.  I’ve largely lost interest in Rand by this stage. He gets to spend some quality time with Min, but most of the time he’s wondering if he’s going mad or not. I think the erratic and irrational behaviour exhibited by him nearly always points to the answer being yes. On the bright side legendary Aes Sedai Cadsuane turns up and if nothing else she’ll provide entertainment going forward, as she seems to think spanking Rand (actually spanking anyone judging by the way she talks) will be the answer to all his problems. Yes, at 7 books in, it is all getting a bit silly at times. A lot of fans are irritated by Cadsuane. I kind of like her. She does come across a bit like an older Nynaeve, so this may be why.

Egwene’s story is largely set at the ‘little tower’ which is on the move. It’s a lot of political posturing, and only seems to be included for the return of Lan to the story. At some stage she’ll have to have a showdown with the White Tower, but why inject some excitement into this instalment when there are so many periopheral issues to concentrate on, like her adolescent sexual fantasies about Elayne’s older brother Gawyn.

Oh, I nearly forgot Perrin. That is entirely understandable I feel. He’s there early, worries needlessly about Faile, sniffs a few things, then wanders off to do something else. I assume we’ll find out what in the next book.

The best bit of the book, as always seems to be for me, involves Nynaeve, Elayne and Mat. The story comes alive when these characters are in it. Their dialog is quite often snappy and funny and makes sense. They do things, things happen to them and around them. Admittedly the idea of the Bowl of Winds is quite silly (so the weather’s off because of a bowl hidden in a warehouse in Ebou Dar, oookay then), but the journey they take through Ebou Dar to get there is interesting. They uncover a bunch of wilders, face down some other Aes Sedai, it just moves when they’re front and centre. Honestly if Jordan had made then the central characters and forgotten all about Rand I would have been much happier. The books would have also been a lot shorter and better for it. I didn’t even groan when Aviendha appeared, maybe this was because she slapped Elayne down.  I’m with Mat: the ‘goat kissing’ Daughter Heir needs to be put in her place every so often.

Bowl of the Winds, aside the author made another odd decision regarding Mat. He is all but raped by a ruler called Tylin, and it was played for laughs. Weird and not particularly funny.

The pacing was a bit off. One moment I remember clearly from the first time I read this was that Mat’s story ended with him running all over Ebou Dar as it was being invaded by the Seanchan, looking for Olver and then the dice in his head that roll when his luck is in stop dead. Now that is a great ending. That is what those who write cliffhanger endings dram about. Those who like reading them want to read this sort of heart in mouth, what happens next ending. Perfect place to end the book. Yet we have a few more dreary chapters of Rand facing off against Sammael and a bunch of trollocs. Why is it that hes the Dragon Reborn when he’s showing off for the likes of Cadsuane, but when faced with what is form him now a fairly mundane threat like trollocs he winds up in mortal danger? Cadsuane had to pull him out of this one and I wouldn’t blame her if she did decide to spank him.

From memory Book 8 The Path of Daggers is pretty dire and it doesn’t contain the answer to the question that everyone was asking after reading A Crown Of Swords, what happened to Mat? I will however push on and hope that my memory is playing me false here.   

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card



Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game seems to be further evidence that SF and I do not play well together.

I knew virtually nothing about the book before I picked it up. It was highly regarded, often talked about and  considered a bit of a ‘must read’ in the genre. I had read the Alvin Maker series by the same author, and I quite liked that, so Ender’s Game may have worked for me.

I didn’t really like it on any level. I found it very hard to buy the idea of Ender and his two siblings Peter and Valentine for a start. They’re bio engineered to be more than ordinary children, so the fact that they act and think much older than their chronological ages shouldn’t be a stretch, but it is. The problem here is that these three are so much more advanced than their peers it doesn’t make sense. If kids in this future have all been bio engineered to be better, smarter, etc… than their parent’s generation, shouldn’t they all be on a similar level? The way I read it they weren’t. You had these super beings in the form of Ender and his brother and sister and everyone else was way behind them.

Ender was also good at everything, the fact that he was so good at everything and never really encountered much more than a hiccup in his progression from gifted child to supreme hero of Earth’s struggle against the insectoid alien menace tended to kill any narrative tension. When reading through this I had the impression that the book was largely aimed at a youngish audience as everything was very clearly spelled out and explained, which meant that the reader didn’t really have to put a lot of thought into it.

Then we had the alien menace. Due to their insectoid appearance they were nicknamed Buggers. This made me chuckle every time I read it. Down here in Australia and also the UK bugger has a very different meaning. We use it as a minor swear word, and it simply didn’t work for me. It made the threat appear rather comedic, which I’m pretty certain was not intended. There was a suggestion that there was no alien enemy, it was something concocted by those in charge to keep the population scared and controlled and not question why they were continually on a war footing. That would have been an interesting angle to explore, but it wasn’t taken.

On that I found Ender’s sociopathic older brother Peter  a far more interesting complex and layered character than Ender himself. He also had more depth than the highly empathic Valentine, yet he was given the least examination in the book. I guess Peter’s Game doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Interesting because again I found Peter was playing a real game, whereas the ‘Game’ in the title is a highly advanced computer game that Ender plays while in training to become a battle commander.

Overall it was a disappointing and unsatisfying read.    

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Phil and Kaja Foglio



Last year I read a fun little romp called Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio, this was the novelisation of the first 3 collections of the duo’s successful and highly acclaimed webcomic Agatha Heterodyne Girl Genius. The sequel Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess is a novelisation of collections 4, 5 & 6 of the webcomic and picks up almost immediately after the end of Agatha H and the Airship City.

Our plucky and resourceful heroine has escaped from Baron Wulfenbach’s flying fortress, with the genetically altered talking cat Krosp, and seems to have been accompanied by a number of the cute mechanical clanks that she has a knack with. She’s had to leave the love of her life Gilgamesh ‘Gil’ Wulfenbach behind and wants to get to the city of Mechanicsburg so that she can try to make some sort of sense out of her life.

While it’s not entirely necessary to have read Agatha H and the Airship City to enjoy Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess I can’t imagine you’d want to do things that way. The two books were designed to work as introduction and sequel. The nature of the book meant that a lot of exposition and introduction was no longer necessary, and this served to advance the story and character development.

Agatha and Krosp joined a circus or a travelling Heterodyne show, they provided both protection and shelter. It was rather a surreal experience for her as she had discovered she was in fact the daughter of the almost mythical Bill Heterodyne and his wife Lucrezia. The show largely exists by putting on highly fictionalised versions of events in the lives of Bill and his brother Barry, so for Agatha to see her own background portrayed this way was odd to say the least.

While the world and setting gained some depth and got wilder and wilder I felt this followup displayed some of the issues with converting a story told largely by pictures into a completely prose medium. I got rather confused by who was who, especially when Agatha kept channelling her mother, and I found it hard to work out at times who was, and who wasn’t a mechanical construct. I made mention of the Jagermonsters in the previous book, and that particular problem was exarcerbated in this one as three of the super solidiers are key characters and comic relief in the book. I find it detracts from the story to have to stop and decipher their accents. It probably works better in a comic, than it does in a book. I also had difficulty telling one from the other, because they all speak and act the same. Their interactions with Krosp were a lot of fun, though. There was very little of the clank Zoing in Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess, which was a shame for me because he was one of the highlights in the series opener.

Overall it’s well worth a read, and it’s a must get for any fan of either the webcomic or the collections. Both character and world building skills do improve markedly and it’s lots of good silly fun, filled with mad science!        

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente



It’s been a year since September returned from Fairyland and not a lot has changed in this world. Her father is still away at the war, her mother still works long hours and everything is rationed. She’s just turned 13 and the other girls at school don’t much care for her or her stories of Fairyland. She’s been hoping the Green Wind will come by and spirit her away again, but he hasn’t shown up. Then just after she turns 13 she sees a boat sailing across the tops of the fields and gives chase, she falls beneath Fairyland.

The Fairyland Below is very different to Fairyland Above. It’s a dark world inhabited more by shadows than actual people and creatures. September finds it every bit as hard to come to grips with as she did when she first arrived in Fairyland Above in the first book (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making). Matters aren’t helped by the fact that September now has a heart, raw and reckless as it may be.

She is reunited in a way with her very best friends anywhere; the Wyvery A through L (Ell for short) and the Marid boy Saturday. I said in a way because just like September in the first book Ell and Saturday have become detached from their shadows and what she meets in Fairyland Below is their shadows, which are only parts of the actual beings, and not always the nicest parts. Ell is more selfish and less affectionate than his above counterpart and Saturday is very forward and impulsive. In fact September isn’t even sure she likes him very much.

Fairyland Below is largely controlled by the wild Halloween, who is actually September’s shadow. I didn’t like Halloween, and September was frankly shocked by what her shadow self is and what she advocates. It’s going to take everything September has and that of her friends to bring this all to a satisfactory conclusion and it may even affect events in the real world outside of Fairyland.

I adored The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, and I think it was far and away the best book of 2011.  It’s sequel is still a very good book (as I said in my review of the first Fairyland book I don’t believe Cat Valente is capable of writing a bad book), but not quite the mind blowing experience that Circumnavigated was. I felt it was darker, especially the depiction of September’s and Saturday’s shadow selves. There are however wonderful moments and characters. The Vicereine of Coffee and the Duke of Teatime along with their children; Darjeeling, Kona, Peaberry, Matcha and even the Littlest Earl, were very amusing. I also liked the Fairy Physickist Belinda Cabbage. The ideas and Valente’s astonishing imagery were still on display and I am in awe of both this woman’s imagination and her incredible facility with language. One thing I did miss from the first book was that narrator played a much smaller role, and I felt that more of her would have been welcome.

While with Circumnavigated one was left with the feeling that September had unfinished business, so the sequel was very necessary. The end of Beneath is more final and things seem to be wrapped up neatly. I wouldn’t rule out a third book, but I do feel that September’s story is now told.  

Once again Feiwel and Friends have done a wonderful job and given us a book of genuine quality, complete with Ana Juan's marvelous and whimsical illustrations on the cover and at the start of each chapter.

Despite maybe not being in my mind quite to the same level as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There is still a wonderful experience that will cross generational boundaries and deserves to be read by everyone.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cold Days by Jim Butcher


Cold Days by Jim Butcher is the 14th book in the Dresden Files. By book 14 of anything you'd think a concept would start to become stale. I'm not saying there hasn't been the occasional dip in quality in the Dresden Files (a number of fans weren't keen on Ghost Story, which preceded Cold Days, although I still liked it), but overall it has maintained a freshness that isn't there in other long running urban fantasy series *cough* Anita Blake *cough*.

In Ghost Story, Harry was, as the title indicates, a ghost. This brought with it a host of problems and gave the reader a more passive Harry than they were used to, and I think that caused complications for some.

Of course the main character being dead wasn't going to fly for long, so Butcher had to make Harry corporeal somehow.  He did this by means of something that occurred a few books back and had a great deal of bearing on the events in Cold Days. Harry moves in all sorts of circles: law enforcement, organised crimes, vampire courts, werewolf packs, wizard councils and the courts of faery. His godmother is the Leanan Sidhe. Some time ago the Queen of Winter Mab claimed Harry as her Winter Knight after he killed the incumbent.

It is Mab that has him nursed back to health and activates him as the Winter Knight.  Harry has a number of issues with being the Winter Knight. One is that the previous Winter Knight was a raving psychotic and Harry has been lead to believe it goes with the title. Then there's what Mab asks him to do; kill Maeve, her daughter, the Winter Lady.

Harry tries to go back to his normal life in Chicago and think a way around everything. He connects with his friend Waldo Butters, and Waldo's girlfriend the werewolf Andi, half brother the vampire Thomas, his former apprentice Molly Carpenter and his massive Chinese Foo dog Mouse.

Complicating things is a disturbance on Harry's island in the harbour. The magical energy it contains could explode and it would take most of Chicago with it.

Harry has to deal with all this and examine the nature of his relationship with Karrin Murphy and his daughter Maggie. Both of these issues will play large parts in further books and I do hope at least one of them is resolved in a happy fashion, because Harry does at least deserve that.

Cold Days is, for an urban fantasy book, pretty long at over 500 pages in hardcover. Despite that it doesn't really flag at any point. I appreciated the more in depth look at faery and I loved Butcher's idea of Santa Claus. The pop culture references flow as usual and they're always appreciated, however I felt that the banter was forced at one point between Molly and Thomas.

The mystery surrounding Harry's favourite bartender Mac is intriguing and will hopefully be explored in future books. A highlight for me was the love/hate relationship between Harry's faery commander Toot Toot and the stern female faery warrior Lacuna.

I'm thoroughly satisfied with Cold Days and eager to see what else Butcher can do with Harry.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder



The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a fantastic mix of steampunk, alternate history, detective novel and science fiction.

The real genius in the book lay in pairing the explorer Sir Richard Burton with the masochistic poet Algernon Swinburne. It’s this unlikely duo and their somewhat exaggerated portrayal in the book that really makes it work and sets it apart from many others of the same type. As soon as I heard Burton was a major character I was probably sold on The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. Richard Burton was one of my favourite characters from Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series and interested me enough to read one of the biographies (The Devil Drives). The opportunity to see him featuring in another story was not to be missed. I think the obvious literary parallel to make here is that Burton is Sherlock Holmes and Swinburne is Dr Watson. That was the feel I got from the duo.

Author Mark Hodder has made full use of his steampunk setting and the alternate Victorian England he has created for the novel. Along with steam powered hansom cabs and single person gyrocopters there are genetically altered parrots, dogs and in one case an orang-utan. Burton and Swinburne aren’t the only real life Victorian figures to play a part in proceedings. The also features the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, nurse Florence Nightingale, naturalist Charles Darwin and playwright Oscar Wilde. I also liked the portrayal of British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, because it tallied in many ways with the way George MacDonald Fraser wrote the same character in his Flashman novels.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack while trying to explain the origin of the supernatural phenomenon referenced in the title, is also a glorious romp through a wondrous and very different Victorian England to the one we know. The character of Algernon Swinburne as he is in the book was a real breath of fresh air, he could go down as one of my favourite sidekicks. The slight poet provides many of the book’s most comedic moments, particularly his antagonistic relationship with the basset hound Fidget.        

I was delighted to get to the end of the book and find that not only did it not spell the end for the decidedly odd couple of Burton and Swinburne, but that there are at least two more books (The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon) featuring them. Although many of the changes within British society and the technological advances are explained by history taking a curious turn I don’t think it covered everything, and I hope that this will be looked into further with the upcoming books in the series. Highly recommended and well worth reading, a superior entry into the ever expanding steampunk sub genre.  

Friday, November 30, 2012

Polterheist by Laura Resnick


2012 has been a good year for fans of Laura Resnick's whacky accidental supernatural detective Esther Diamond. The first book in the series (Disappearing Nightly) was rereleased a few months ago, and now Polterheist came out on schedule in November.

The book is seasonal and fittingly for the time of year it was released the season it deals with is Christmas. After the closure of the play Esther was working on; The Vampyre, the struggling actress couldn't get her regular casual work as a singing waitress at mob cafe Bella Stella and so was forced to take a job as a Jewish Christmas elf called Dreidel at the multi denominational Solsticeland in a large city department store.

Things are okay, well as okay as dealing with screaming children and demanding parents can be for an elf in an uncomfortable costume, until employees start going missing and Esther is attacked and threatened by a mechanical singing tree.

If you haven't read the Esther Diamond's before then that all sounds pretty weird. If you have read any of the books then it's all par for the course for Esther.

The books aren't really about the whodunnit anymore, that's certainly still part of it, but it's the comedy that keeps me coming back. This one is full of pointed and highly amusing comments regarding Christmas from the point of view of someone in retail.

Being the fifth book in the series gave Laura Resnick the chance to get a number of characters from previous adventures (the drag queen Satsy, ex boyfriend Jeff and my favourite side character Gambello family hitman Lucky Battistuzzi), as well as regulars Max and detective Connor Lopez.

There are a number of highlights in the book, but my personal favourite was Esther meeting Lopez's parents for the first time.

Esther goes from strength to strength and will no doubt win new fans with her performance in Polterheist. Very eager for the next instalment of her adventures in Misfortune Cookie.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan



The 6th book of Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series; Lord of Chaos, made me question the wisdom of what I had decided to do in reading or rereading the entire cycle from start to finish in preparation for the release of the long awaited final volume.

Lord of Chaos is one of the biggest books in the cycle, only being topped by The Shadow Rising (book 4) in terms of length.

As with a number of other books in the Wheel of Time it could have been shortened by at least half it’s 987 pages and not suffered as a result of the pruning. It may have been considerably improved. Right from The Eye of the World (the first book in the series) Jordan has tended to write overblown description, but with book 4 he started to take the world building to ridiculous lengths, mostly concerning long, tedious passages to do with the culture, history and beliefs of his favourite; the Aiel. I’m sure there are some people that find it interesting, I’m not one of them. By Lord of Chaos he had started to repeat information that had already been covered over and over.

For the first two thirds of it’s 900+ pages Lord of Chaos meanders along and jumps from character to character: Rand, Egwene, Mat, Nynaeve and Elayne, without anyone actually doing anything or getting anywhere. They do move, albeit at a snail’s pace, physically, but the story goes nowhere.

In the last 3rd things happen and the story actually breaks out of the blocks and advances. Perrin returns for one.

I still don’t understand Rand’s attraction to women, neither does he, mind you. His regular conversations with Lews Therin at the back of his mind are tedious. Yes, I get it, he has the mind of an ancient hero in his head. I understand now. You can stop hammering that in every second paragraph. Despite my dislike of Rand, one of the least interesting heroes I can remember reading about, I didn’t like what was done to him in this book. He was captured by a group of ‘rogue’ Aes Sedai, kept in a box and taken out twice a day to be tortured. It was the torture that bothered me. It’s not particularly gruesome or gory, it’s just unnecessary. The women don’t seem to do it for any other purpose than they can. It just doesn’t make sense. We know this particular group of Aes Sedai are unpleasant, it didn’t need to be reinforced like this.

Egwene being made Amyrlin Seat was a nice touch. The politics of the Aes Sedai are always so much more interesting than that of the Forsaken, Rand and the various ruling factions. It’s rather obvious that Egwene was raised to the position because they felt she’d be controllable. Interesting that they’re considered so smart, yet they selected the one person who was the least likely to become a puppet and raised her to a position of great power. Egwene and Nynaeve got sent off to Ebou Dar on their own request to seek an item of power that they’d managed to uncover. I saw this with trepidation, while I know this mission has some interesting events attached to it in future books, it was also from memory host to some of the later books most boring passages.

I liked seeing Mat finally adopt the war orphan Olver and not realise why he was doing it. Olver, despite his ugliness, is like a junior Mat. He provides the book with some of it’s funnier and more touching moments. It was also pleasant to see Mat asserting himself with Nynaeve, Elayne and Egwene and refusing to let any of them push him around anymore. Nynaeve is the one that realises Mat is no longer the mischievous little boy she was forever having to discipline, but is a large and slightly dangerous fully grown man and not someone she can bully anymore.  

Although I know book 7 doesn’t pick up the pace, in fact I think it slows down even more, I’m bound and determined and will soldier on next month.       

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes



I’d heard of Flowers for Algernon before, but didn’t know much about it other than it was a respected and highly regarded work of classic science fiction. I’m not really a science fiction person, so the book didn’t appear on my radar overall. Two things brought it to my attention as something to read. One was JJ Abrams action/drama Person of Interest which featured Flowers for Algernon as the inspiration for one of the show’s more intriguing villains. I wanted to see what about the book inspired the character. Then Fantasy Faction chose it as their science fiction book for November.

Even when I cracked Flowers for Algernon open I didn’t know much more about it than the information on the back cover blurb. I was not at all prepared for the powerful emotional response that it provoked within me.

The book is presented as a diary or journal of a mentally disabled man called Charlie Gordon. Charlie has an IQ of 68, and he works sweeping the floors of a bakery near Beekman university. Despite his low IQ and difficulties retaining even simple concepts, Charlie wants to be smart, and to that end he enrols in a class taught by Alice Kinnian for mentally disabled adults to learn how to read and write at a higher level than he can currently achieve.

Miss Kinnian brings Charlie to the attention of a research group at the university, who are working on a way of increasing human intelligence, and see Charlie as a possible human ‘guinea pig’. They’ve had some success with mice. The Algernon of the title is their star subject, having undergone an operation to increase his intelligence and had it succeed for longer than any other subject they’ve used. In fact the point is made early on by having Charlie and Algernon run the same maze (Charlie does it with an electronic pointer) and Algernon beating Charlie every time that the mouse is actually smarter than the man.   

Charlie undergoes the operation, and initially doesn’t seem all that much smarter, but in a relatively short space of time his intelligence increases dramatically and the genius level that he attains also unlocks his memory, giving him access to traumatic childhood events that he had mercifully buried in the recesses of his mind.

Charlie is astoundingly intelligent. He can speak multiple languages, solve complex mathematical theorems in seconds and outstrips nearly every mind on the planet. Despite how smart he is, he hasn’t had personal growth or experience and he’s not equipped to handle the emotional responses he is now receiving from his interactions with other people. He’s grown mentally, but as a person he is still a young child who has difficulty dealing with the world as an adult. He’s also incredibly lonely. When he had a low IQ he was cut off from others because they couldn’t come down to his level, now no one can associate with him as an equal, because he is so much more intelligent than they are.

The reader has to feel for Charlie. All he wanted was to be like others. He didn’t want to be a genius. He just wanted to be smart enough to read and write at an acceptable level, maybe rise above sweeping the floors of the bakery to actually become an apprentice baker or even a master baker. Instead he became an unapproachable genius and effectively walled himself off from everyone around him. The only creature he feels really understands him is Algernon, possibly because they share an experience.

Not long after the operation Charlie proclaims that as long as Algernon is okay, so is he, so when the mouse begins to behave erratically and it’s clear that the effects of the surgery are wearing off and even becoming harmful, readers get a sick feeling that the same will happen to Charlie.

There are heartbreaking encounters with his long absent father, his abusive mother, now herself suffering debilitating senility (it’s never referred to as Alzheimers, but that’s clearly what it is) and his younger sister, who never understood before Charlie was sent away what she had inadvertently done to him.

Inevitably Charlie’s mind begins to fail him. Bit by bit everything is taken away from him. He can’t understand other languages, he can’t do anything than the most simple mathematical problems, he even forgets where he lives in more than one occasion. Algernon has by this stage passed away from the effects of the experiment. although Charlie always remembers to put flowers on his friend’s little grave.

When Charlie forgets and turns up at Miss Kinnian’s class as a student again not long after making the heartfelt plea in his Progress Report to not let him forget how to read and write I was in tears.

What Daniel Keyes did with Flowers for Algernon was, at the time, revolutionary. He refused to give it a happy ending where Charlie regains his intelligence, marries Alice and lives happily ever after, and he had problems finding a publisher because of it. I’m glad he stuck to his guns. Despite how heartbreaking the end is I would have felt ripped off if it had been given a happily ever after ending. The style is unusual too. It’s told by Charlie in the form of Progress Reports that he’s asked to write by the two scientists (Dr Strauss and Professor Nemur) in charge of the project. The early reports are littered with spelling errors and a lack of punctuation as befits someone of Charlie’s low IQ, they gradually change to become quite scientifically and emotionally complex as Charlie’s intelligence and personal experience increase. Then as his new found intelligence starts to fail the style reverts back and by the end Charlie seems less intelligent than he was when he began his journey.

Although the book is classified as science fiction, the science fiction (the operation that is trialled on Charlie) is a minimal part of it. It explores themes of bullying and child abuse, the way that intellectually disabled members of society are frequently misunderstood, marginalised and mistreated. There’s also a commentary on the ethics of science and the use of experimental techniques on animals and people. It’s not a long book and it’s not hard to read or understand, but it will give you something to think about long after you’ve closed it. Brilliant, brilliant book and I urge everyone who has never read it to do so.   

Monday, November 19, 2012

John Dies at the End by David Wong



The story of how I happened to pick up John Dies at the End isn’t anywhere near as epic as the book, but it’s almost as random as the plot. I first saw the book a year or so ago, but the cover did nothing for me, so I left it on the shelf. Then I saw the sequel This Book is Full of Spiders. I have serious arachnophobia, so any book that proudly proclaims it is full of spiders is going to naturally attract my attention, even if it’s just to shudder at the thought. I now have a fear of opening a book and having a bloody great huntsman jump out at me. Anyway I had a look at This Book is Full of Spiders and was informed that it is the sequel to John Dies at the End. The author (David Wong, not his real name) did say it wasn’t necessary to read the previous book, but I’m odd like that. So I bought John Dies at the End. It was an odd decision reached in an equally unusual way, but I am so glad I did it.

In the afterword the actual author of John Dies at the End and the real person behind David Wong (Jason Pargin, humor editor of Cracked.com)  explains how the book came to be, and like the book itself, there was nothing normal about it, and it probably broke a number of rules about how to get published.

John Dies at the End breaks all sorts of rules about writing. Giving away the ending in the book’s title is just one of them. Continuity is often ignored, only to be retconned later on, and it’s not uncommon for the first person narrator to simply deviate away from the point and go on a long verbal ramble which may or may not have anything to do with the story being told.

Despite the failings it somehow works and manages to be highly amusing. The story follows two high school dropouts who work at a local video store (ala Kevin Smith’s Clerks) and one night accidentally discover a drug they name ‘soy sauce’ because of it’s appearance. Soy sauce actually opens up a gateway to another dimension and allows creatures from that dimension to enter our own. Unless John and Dave can stop it this dimension will totally take over ours. How they go about doing this is a fun filled romp through the unnamed town of Undisclosed complete with blowing stuff up, various random encounters with aliens and the use of folding chairs as weapons of mass destruction where other dimensional insectoid monsters are concerned.

The style of the book is sort of like a collaboration between Stephen King, Douglas Adams, Kevin Smith and Ben Edlund. It is every bit as weird and strange as what may have occurred had these four individuals gotten drunk together one night and decided to write a book.

The concept has been very popular and has even spawned a movie (due for release in 2013). I can’t wait.

I found it by accident, but it proved to be one of the funniest and most entertaining reads I’ve been privileged to enjoy this year.   

Saturday, November 17, 2012

An Evening with Rachel Caine





My first encounter with Rachel Caine was many years ago when I read the first of her Weather Warden books. I never continued with that particular series, but then not all that long ago I started seeing the Morganville Vampires books pop up. The premise intrigued me and I bought the first one. I got my wife hooked on them, and she read them all. I’m only getting around to them now and have read the first five of the thirteen that are currently out.

I’ve never been to an author signing. The closest I came was getting George Martin to sign a copy of A Dance with Dragons at Worldcon in 2011, but Worldcon, while it has signings, is about a lot more than getting copies of books signed by the author.

When the Rachel Caine signing was announced my wife and I decided to meet up after work and attend. My wife had been to a signing before (Terry Pratchett), but this one was a little different because it featured a Q & A with the author.

It’s always an interesting experience seeing and hearing an author live. You tend to build up an image of how they look and sound from reading their work, and they’re often very different in person. I had seen what Rachel Caine looked like, and she didn’t resemble my mental image, so that wasn’t a surprise, but when she opened her mouth and a broad Texas accent flowed out that did throw me. It shouldn’t have, considering that the Morganville books are set in Texas, but when I read, unless I have another frame of reference, everyone sounds like an Australian to me.

One thing I was worried about with the Q & A was being spoiled. I’m only five books into a thirteen book series (there are at least fifteen planned), and a lot of the other attendees, judging by the piles of books they brought with them, were a lot further on than me.

The first part of the session was Rachel telling us the story of how she came to be called that and how she was published eventually leading to someone suggesting she write YA. The idea for Morganville was inspired by a rather mundane observation that the streetlights in one town were spaced wide apart.

Rachel has done the really BIG conventions, like San Diego and New York comic cons, and she came to Australia this time for SuperNova, but she said she prefers smaller gatherings like this bookstore one, largely because she can interact with the readers better.

After the Q & A which included questions such as the music she listens to when writing and how the bunny slippers worn by a character came about, she settled down to do the signing.

As I said I’d never been to a signing, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about how authors will only do book limits and won’t do dedications, personalized messages, etc… They had said Rachel would sign anything, but she has over 20 books out, what if someone brought their entire collection?

As it turned out they were telling the truth. Rachel was happy to sign everything, no one brought the whole twenty plus books, but there were a few complete Morganville collections there, and I was pleased to see that not everyone confined themselves to Morganville as well. Not only was she happy to sign books, she did dedications and would do personalisations as well. If anyone wanted a photograph she was more than accommodating there too. She also wanted to chat to people, which was great.

If all authors are like Rachel I’ll be going to more signings, and hopefully she’ll also tour Australia next year by which time all the Morganvilles will be out and I’ll have read them all and understand the bunny slippers reference.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Feast of Fools & Lord of Misrule by Rachel Caine



I think this review may actually be a first for the blog. I don't think I've ever done two books in the one review before. Feast of Fools and Lord of Misrule are the 4th and 5th volumes of Rachel Caine's Morganville Vampires series. Although they are two separate books and were published months apart they're really one continuing story. Feast of Fools ends on a major cliffhanger and I had to run to our library to pull out Lord of Misrule and start it right away (when I'm reading a series, I usually take a break in between books).

The 3rd book in the series (Midnight Alley) ended with new arrivals into the sleepy little vampire controlled town of Morganville, Texas. One were main character's Claire Danvers' protective parents moving into the town to keep an eye on their daughter and the other was an old, imperious vampire who went by the name of Bishop and claimed to be the father of Morganville's head vampire; Amelie.

I'm heading into SPOILERLAND here, so if you haven't read at least Feast of Fools and don't want to be spoiled you may want to quit right now. As it turned out Bishop actually is Amelie's father, both biologically and as a vampire, which is seriously icky.

Bishop wants control of the town, exactly why is never made clear, although it may be in later books. The vampires do have a good deal in Morganville, they own the town and the people in it, and they're protected. They are however suffering from a mysterious disease which seems to affect their sanity and they're not creating many new members. Claire's friend Michael Glass is the first newly created vampire in nearly 70 years, the one before that was his grandfather Sam.

Claire and her friends; Shane Collins and Eve Rosser, along with Michael aren't about to let their town go without a fight, and a fight of huge proportions in what ensues throughout the two books. Lord of Misrule never lets up for a second, that one is all action, all the time.

Claire's parents moving in (clueless as they are) creates two problems for Claire. One is that they want her to move in with them, and while they're in town she has no reason not to, the other is that they give Claire's enemies leverage against her. Although it looks like Claire is protected and favoured by Amelie, she can turn depending on what the situation demands and if she requires the lives of Claire's parents to bend Claire to her will then so be it.

It's a fast moving, engaging series with heroes to cheer for and villains to hiss at. It also has shades of grey characters. Amelie is one. Myrnin is another. Myrnin is a fan favourite, because of how quirky he is. Rachel Caine said she likes writing him too, because he's unpredictable, but this unpredictability makes him dangerous. He's very old, even by vampire terms, he has a fairly tenuous grip on sanity, and he does often regard humans as 'pets'.

Lord of Misrule also introduced another character I grew to like; former marine and current mechanic Hannah Moses. I hope we see more of her.

While mean girl Monica Morrell is hateful, I do admit to feeling sorry for her for the way she was treated in Lord of Misrule. She deserved most of it, but it was brutal. Rachel Caine writes the teenage bullying scenes so well that it makes me wonder if she herself wasn't the victim of it growing up. They do serve to remind that there are things in this world more dangerous than vampires, largely because they're real and they do exist.

I've really come to like Monica's brother Richard. He's a genuine good guy, not sure how he managed it growing up in that family, but there you have it. I'm conflicted about Shane. He has issues with Michael being a vampire, and still a friend. It's understandable, but it's becoming a bit tedious and we don't need to be battered over the head with it in every book.

While Lord of Misrule doesn't end on the same sort of cliffhanger as Feast of Fools it does also lead into the next book; Carpe Corpus. I'm going to make some inroads on the ever growing TBR pile, but as soon as I have I'll be pulling Carpe Corpus off the shelf and heading back to Morganville.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip


I'd heard of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld before I saw it on the list. It was one of those things I always wanted to read, but never really got around to.

The idea behind it is definitely appealing. A menagerie of fantastical beasts (a wise talking boar, a loyal and powerful lion, a dragon. etc...) is collected by a feisty independent thinking woman raised in a wilderness.

Sybel; the heroine, is happy amongst her extraordinary creatures and calling new ones, and wants for nothing else, until she is brought a child to look after and bonds with him as if he were her own.

Sybel falls in love not once, not twice, but three times and will also know heartbreak. It's a lyrically written tale and it's rather timeless. There's more to this story than what is on the face of it, although it's quite enjoyable if you simply read it that way, but you can think about it and find more in it's words than what they say at first look.

It's a rather haunting story that stays with the reader long after they finish it.

I did find some similarities with The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr Lao, which had an equally interesting and amazing menagerie. Well worth seeking out if you haven't encountered Patricia McKillip before.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie


When I first heard that Joe Abercrombie's 2012 Circle of the World standalone novel was going to be a western I wondered exactly how the author could accomplish that in a pre industrial world which had not yet developed the hand gun.

The more I heard about Red Country in the lead up to it's release, the more it seemed that Joe Abercrombie had not only done that, he'd accomplished it with his usual style and wit.

Right from the opening page of Red Country it's very obvious that this book is very much a western. It doesn't have guns or steam trains, but everything else is right from the western playbook. There are elements of everything from the early dime store novels telling action packed stories of hard fighting frontiersmen to more recent warts and all TV shows like Deadwood.

There's a dedication to Clint Eastwood at the start of the book, and you could really see the grizzled old actor playing a character in the story. There's bits of True Grit, The Searchers, The Unforgiven and the aforementioned Deadwood, as well as any other western film or TV show you'd care to name. Despite all this the book fits in well with the previous five Circle of the World novels (The First Law trilogy and the two standalones Best Served Cold and The Heroes).

It's a fairly simple tale of search and revenge. Shy South and her seemingly mild mannered, confrontation averse step father Lamb, return to their small holding to find it burned and their hired hand killed. There is no sign of Shy's younger brother and sister. Shy's not a lady to cross and she loves her siblings. Whoever took them is going to give them back and pay for the doing of it with their blood.

Shy and Lamb will meet up with infamous mercenary captains, discredited actors, slippery lawyers, legendary frontiersmen and hunted rebels. They'll lose some of their own, they'll fight the local natives (called Ghosts), the mercenary company of Nicomo Cosca and each other. They'll also confront their own pasts. That's the thing about the west in this world, everyone seems to go there to outrun their past. In one surprising case they'll even find love out there amongst, the dirt, mud, blood and death.

It's a sprawling novel that is an immense amount of fun, despite the genuinely epic feel of Red Country it is one of Abercrombie's shortest books, my copy weighed in at 451 pages, and they flew by.

It is a genuine standalone, but having as characters from the previous 5 books pop in and out of the story it gives some extra context to have read some of the earlier work in the same setting. A question that has been haunting readers since the end of The Last Argument of Kings is also answered, so if you don't want to be spoiled for the opening trilogy, it's an idea to at least read that first.

Joe Abercrombie always hits the mark for me and Red Country is no exception. The Heroes remains my favourite of his books, but Red Country is definitely going to make my top reads of 2012.