Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ex Heroes by Peter Clines

Peter Clines' debut Ex Heroes can be best described as take zombies add super heroes then stand back and watch the results.

The book is told using a Now and Then scenario. The Now is some time not that long after the zombie apocalypse, in Los Angeles while a small group of non infected humans fight for survival while holed up in an abandoned movie studio. They're protected from both the 'exes' (as Clines refers to his zombies, which is another reason for the title) and a large gang known as the Seventeens by a small group of super powered humans. There are times when you wonder who is the bigger threat, the exes or the Seventeens.

The Then covers the heroes just prior to or at the start of the outbreak. Unlike the Now which is told in third person, the Then parts of the story are told in first person and cover different viewpoints.

The zombie threat is similar to Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy or the graphic novel and TV hit The Walking Dead in that one becomes a zombie, or ex, by being bitten by someone already infected. Just like with those ideas the zombies are shambling creatures who can only be taken out with a fatal shot or wound to the head, like in The Walking Dead, they are also attracted by noise.

The heroes in a lot of cases have analogues with real comic book heroes. The central character of St George, also known as The Mighty Dragon is rather like Superman in that he has multiple gifts. He's super strong, he can jump high enough to allow him to glide for long distances, he breathes fires, he's invulnerable. Interestingly his role model as a hero is Doctor Who (the classic Doctor, pre the 2005 revival), largely because the Doctor didn't have any powers, he was simply a person who wanted to do the right thing and help others.

The leader of the heroes is a woman called Stealth. We never really find out her complete skill set, but it pales in comparison to St George's. She gave off a bit of a Batman vibe, certainly more the Dark Knight Batman than the earlier campy one from the 60's TV show.

Zzzap had a Human Torch kind of power and Cerberus reminded me of Iron Man, being encased in a super soldier mechanical suit.

This particular zombie book (Clines has since produced Ex Patriots as well) follows a conflict between the heroes and the humans in the movie studio and the Seventeens who are also using exes to get control of the city.

The whole thing is a really fun romp and the addition of super heroes adds a fresh new factor to the zombie fiction genre. The final conflict between a small band of heroes and almost innumerable exes as well as some former heroes that the Seventeens enlisted had a very comic book feel about it. It reminded me both of the final battle in The Avengers and the classic X-Men #137.

If you like comics about super heroes and zombies then you don't need to look further than Ex Heroes for a fun time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Oz Reimagined edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen

L. Frank Baum's Oz seems to have regained quite some popularity recently with hugely successful musicals (Wicked) and a big new release film (The Great and Powerful Oz) hitting out screens not all that long ago. The anthology Oz Reimagined seems to be riding that wave.

The idea, as the title suggests, is to revisit L. Frank Baum's magical world and characters with a different spin on it. Like most anthologies Oz Reimagined has hits and misses. Unfortunately I found this particular collection to have more misses than hits.

The original story has a whimsy about it that has seen it endure over the years and remain a popular modern fairytale for generations. The stories for the most part had difficulty capturing that lightness and sense of wonder. Oz is an unreal world and a number of the stories seemed to want the real world to intrude far too much on the fantasy.

As I said Oz is a modern day fairytale and this collection is definitely not for children. A number of the stories were disappointing. More than one of them seemed to be part of a larger concept and were cut off quickly when they reached their page limit, which made for a frustrating read as I got impression there was more story there than I was being told. I especially got this with Seanan McGuire's contribution Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust. A Meeting in Oz by Jeffrey Ford was quite an unpleasant tale and I doubt I would have included it in the anthology if it had been up to me. Dale Bailey's City So Bright was similar and it really didn't reference the original work at all.

There were however a few stories that did work for me. One was Tad Williams The Boy Detective of Oz. That may have been because it tied into his Otherland version of Oz and featured Orlando Gardiner from Otherland and I've always liked him as a character.

Ken Liu's The Veiled Shanghai, giving Oz an Asian flavour and setting, was very clever and quite well done.

Jane Yolen had an interesting spin on the whole thing with the first person Blown Away, which told the story of Oz as it may have really been. I felt it was the best written story in the collection.

Orson Scott Card's contribution: Off to See the Emperor gave us food to think about in telling how Baum's son may have had the experience that led his father to create Oz in the first place.

My favourite story of the lot was the final entry: Jonathan Maberry's Cobbler of Oz. That one nailed the feeling. It was a delight, an Ozian fairytale created a story within a story and it's protagonist Nyla the flightless Winged Monkey reminded me very much of Dorothy herself. A pleasure to read from start to finish.

Oz Reimagined is a valiant attempt, but unfortunately too many of the stories seem to understand what Oz means and can't capture the spirit of the original.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mortal Coils by Eric Nylund

I've had this sitting on the TBR pile for years now and I think I may have done the book a great disservice by taking this long to actually read it.

On the surface of it Mortal Coils looks and sounds like fairly standard YA urban fantasy, but there is so much more to it than that.

The just turned fifteen year old twins Eliot and Fiona Post have been raised and home schooled by their incredibly strict grandmother Audrey, and the only relief they get from the grind of schoolwork and actual part time work at a local pizza restaurant is from their very old great grandmother Cee, who despite being older than Audrey defers to her daughter.

The one thing that the Post twins have always been curious about is the identity of their parents, but talk of them seems to be forbidden as are many other things in the twins lives. In fact their grandmother has 106 written rules that are not to be broken for any reason.

Like many children raised by emotionally distant guardians the kids are very close and protective of each other and like teenagers they like to tease each other. In keeping with their rather unusual upbringing the teasing takes the form of a game they call vocabulary insult, in which they use obscure literary allusions and scientific terms to insult each other. The first of them either to unable work out the reference, or reply to it adequately, loses.

Everything changes on the eve of their fifteenth birthdays when odd things start to happen to them and they encounter outsiders.

The truth of it is that Eliot and Fiona are the offspring of a forbidden union between an Infernal (fallen angel, in this case Lucifer) and an Immortal (goddess). Their respective families have become aware of their existence and both want them, but before they can be accepted into the fold by either side, they must be tested to see what, if anything, they have inherited from their parents.

Mortal Coils was an astonishing book in many ways. The characterisation of Eliot and Fiona was spot on. The two were believable and engaging protagonists and audiences should be able to identify with them and the trials they go through. Their actual talents were interesting and different. Eliot finds he has an affinity with music and Fiona can literally cut things with her sheer will.

There was an interesting mix of myth and legend from ancient Greek and Norse legends to modern day urban legends (the giant alligator in the sewers and Area 51). Gods such as Hermes and the Fates play prominent parts along with fallen angels like Lucifer and Beelzebub.

There's a joke that runs through the narrative that this isn't so much a novel as something based on actual accounts from Eliot and Fiona, who aren't fictional protagonists but real people who have themselves passed into legend.  This is backed by a note from the editor at the start of the book and footnotes throughout that reference such sources as Gods of the First and Twenty-first Century, The Post Family Mythology or the Mythica Improbiba by Father Sildas Pious. I'm a great fan of things like this, they really add depth to a work.

It's highly ambitious and has much more behind it than a first look leads one to believe. One of the stunning things about Mortal Coils is despite that depth and the extra work that must have been undertaken to execute this, it never loses quality or fails to delight.

I've got to say that overall Mortal Coils was a joy to read, so much so that I've even got the sequel All That Lives Must Die ready to go soon.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Poison by Sarah Pinborough

It would be easy to dismiss Sarah Pinborough's Poison as another entry in the growing subgenre of fairy tale fiction, but to do so would be doing this wonderful little volume a great disservice.

There are three of these planned (Charm and Beauty are scheduled for release later this year). The titles give you a hint as to which fairy tale they concern themselves with.

Poison is about Snow White, it also has elements of a number of other classic fairy tales in it. The witch from Hansel and Gretel gets more than a mention as does Aladdin.

Although Poison is set in a very identifiable fairy tale kingdom and it has all the known parts of that old story: the beautiful young princess, the wicked step mother, the magic mirror, the good hearted huntsman, the doughty dwarves and the handsome prince, it is not simply a retelling of Snow White. There's a very modern feel to it and the characters have more depth than you find in the original.

Poison isn't a long book, it comes in at an easily and quickly readable 200 pages, but there's more to it than a page count. This had more impact than many books more than twice it's length.

It has wonderfully lyrical prose, humour and sex.

The best way to describe Poison quickly would be to say that not all fairy tales have happy endings.

For me this book was a great surprise, but I really loved it and am eagerly looking forward to Charm and Beauty.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

I first started reading Naomi Novik's Temeraire alternate history novels, where she added dragons into the Napoleonic wars when the first book His Majesty's Dragon was still known as Temeraire.

Back then I used to look forward to each and every instalment as something special, a bit of a highlight of the reading year. Crucible of Gold is the seventh Temeraire book and as the excerpt at the back of the book from Blood of Tyrants lists it as the penultimate novel in the series, it would appear that it's planned to end at nine books total.

The warning signs for the series were there in the last book Tongues of Serpents. That was set in Australia and a major disappointment for me as I felt it was badly handled and wound up being rather boring overall.

I'd hoped it was a bit of a road bump, but that does not appear to be the case. I doubt I would have even completed Crucible of Gold if I wasn't already so invested in the series.

The books have become a bit formulaic. Temeraire and Laurence head off somewhere new and exotic in the service of king and country. In the case of Crucible of Gold it's South America, which in Novik's version of the 19th century is still largely controlled by the Incas. They encounter local dragon life. There's a fight or two. Everything gets resolved to a point where the story can continue and they do it all over again in the next book.

I still like the way Temeraire himself is written, although as a character his development seems to have plateaued and while the fire breathing Turkish dragon Iskierka can be amusing, her continual arguing with Temeraire has become tiresome rather than entertaining.

The author gives credit to her beta readers and editors for improving the book during the process, aside from correcting any typos or grammatical errors I can't see evidence of editing in this book. At one point Laurence answers an unasked question.

I'll stick with it, but only because I want to see it through to the end. You could skip Crucible of Gold in the series, read a synopsis somewhere online and save yourself the time and money.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Fall of Night by Rachel Caine

At the end of the previous book in Morganville Vampires (Bitter Blood) the series' main character; Claire Danvers, was given permission (actually strongly encouraged) to leave the town and go study at MIT.

Fall of Night is the book that details the result. I truly didn't believe that Claire would actually leave the town. In the past the fact that either her parents or her friends, including boyfriend Shane, are there has kept her from doing so even though Amelie has given her permission to do so. I thought this may be the same, but no Claire actually does leave and makes it to MIT.

You'd think this was a strength, taking the girl out of the town and letting her spread her wings, but I think it actually becomes a weakness of the book. Claire is a part of Morganville and you can't just have a cast of characters for 13 books and then drop them out of the story and introduce new ones and make it work.

So to a large extent Morganville follows Claire to MIT. First it's boyfriend Shane. I had major issues with this. Claire specifically asked him not to follow her, so he doesn't tell her, not even when he's in Cambridge, he just hangs around 'keeping an eye' on her. Now no matter how you try to rationalise it, and Shane does, that is stalking.

Then Myrnin escapes and heads for Claire. Michael and Eve follow him and because Oliver was exiled at the end of Bitter Blood you just know he's going to pop up as well.

Things about this one started to become a little too obvious as well. One of the villains of this piece; a scientist called Irene Anderson, was initially Claire's mentor and friend, but honestly she was so obviously a villain that she may have just as well been wearing a t-shirt with Villainous Plot Twist written on it large bright letters.

I did like the introduction of Jesse and Pete; a vampire person crime fighting duo, who work as a bartender and a bouncer when they're not out saving people. Jesse was also one of those actual historical figures like Oliver and Ada that Rachel Caine sometimes likes to introduce in this. Exactly how she escaped the axe I don't know, but apparently she did. If Rachel Caine wanted to continue the vampire concept and maybe turn it into a more adult pitched series then books starring Jesse and Pete could definitely work.

I thought the storyline concerning Claire's old school friend and roommate Liz and her stalker Derrick kind of went nowhere as did the storyline concerning Liz's sleazy professor Dr Davis, he was another very obvious villain.

For the first time there's a pretty evil cliffhanger at the end of this one, which will definitely keep people reading.

In more than one way I'm pleased that she series is being brought to a close with the next book. I think the idea has run it's course and it's time to wind it up. I like to see Fall of Night as a bit of a blip in what has overall been a highly entertaining series of vampire books for a YA audience.