Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys / ****

WinterTide_hi_compWhat I knew about Winter Tide before I read it was that Ruthanna Emrys had written a sort of homage to H.P. Lovecraft – but not the kind that we’ve seen all too many of in recent years. Instead, what I knew is that it was something unique; less of a pure homage to Lovecraft and in some ways a response, or a story that felt inspired by Lovecraft’s world but had no interest in exploring the style he had created.

Here’s, perhaps, what I wish I had known: what all of that means is that, yes, Ruthanna Emrys has written a Lovecraftian story…but one that’s not a horror story, nor has any interest in being one. Instead, it uses Lovecraft’s complex cosmology to tell the story of the town of Innsmouth – or, more accurately, the few survivors of that town after the government raid depicted in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” What might they have been like, wonders Emrys? What if what the agents saw wasn’t the horrors Lovecraft depicted, but simply saw an unfamiliar religion, one that felt primal and dark, but truly was just something alien to them? Such a reaction – fear, imprisonment, government action – certainly wouldn’t have been atypical of the period. What might it be like if you envisioned a world where Lovecraft’s tales happened, but they represented the fringes and the lunatics of that religion, and not the norm?

If you can picture that, you might have a sense of what Winter Tide is going to be – that, instead of the Lovecraftian horrors, what you get is a story of outsiders who are feared by much of society; whose religion embraces the unknown and places humanity as a tiny speck in the cosmos; who believe and practice magic not for power, but for knowledge; who see the fringe lunatics that practice the darker side of their religion as horrors, and not representative of what they do. And if, perhaps, some of this seems darkly familiar to you, Emrys underlines her point by giving the Innsmouth survivors a group they met and bond with – the Japanese citizens placed in internment camps during World War II.

What this all comes to is a fascinating, wholly unique take on Lovecraft’s legacy, one that’s inspired less by his prose or his unspeakable horrors and more by the underlying ideas of that horror: that mankind is just a speck in the universe, looking outward an unknowable creatures that might as well be gods to us – creatures that maybe don’t even care about us. All of this is integrated into a loose plot that finds our heroine trying to reconnect to her roots in an effort to work with the same government that attacked Innsmouth – this time to prevent the Soviets from using some of their magics to win the Cold War.

But really, Winter Tide is less about its story than it is the mood of the thing, and the immersion in a world of magic, strange gods, and fascinating creatures. It’s a world where unknowable things can take notice of us in horrible ways, but also a world in which outsider races commune under the ocean, or ancient groups find unity in back alleys. Winter Tide has a story, but what’s lingered with me is the strangely quiet, thoughtful take on a mythos that’s so often been about madness and devastation. As a book, it feels a bit slow and meandering, but as an experience, it’s something wholly unique and fascinating.

Side note: Winter Tide is actually the second story Emrys has written in this universe. The first was a novelette entitled “The Litany of Earth”; it’s included with the eBook version of Winter Tide, but having read it, I can’t help but feel that it provides an easier entryway into Emrys’s world, as well as setting up some of the main characters nicely. Luckily, it’s available here for free on; it might give you a sense of how Emrys’s world before you jump into Winter Tide.


All Systems Red, by Martha Wells / ****

71koskvyoblWhen the only thing you know about a book is that its narrator and “hero” is a android named “Murderbot”…well, that’s a pretty outstanding hook for a novel, isn’t it?

Such is the case with Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, the first novel in a series called “The Murderbot Diaries,” about a corporate-owned security droid that refers to itself as Murderbot – an indication of the conflicted, morally dubious, darkly humorous world that you’re about to plunged into. Murderbot makes for a wonderful host for this novel; deeply iffy about the humans its supposed to be protecting, uncomfortable with its place in life (not quite property, not quite sentient life), more interested in watching downloaded TV than talking to the human clients who need it, Murderbot is a wonderfully odd, unique creation. More importantly, thanks to Wells, Murderbot’s voice is fantastic – funny, idiosyncratic, and the perfect blend of antihero and hero.

All of which is good, because the actual story of All Systems Red is pretty generic. It’s not a bad story, mind you; it follows a team of planetary scientists who become slowly aware that the planet they’re on may be occupied by something hostile to them, and need Murderbot’s help in staying alive. That’s all fine, but there’s little here to write home about from a plot perspective. Things unfold at a nice clip, and there are enough developments and reveals to keep things moving. But there’s no real surprises, nothing too out of the ordinary – it’s a plot that serves as a framework for the novel, and not much more.

But that doesn’t really matter, because it’s clear that the plot is here to support Murderbot, and not the other way around. And given that Murderbot is such an engaging narrator – even before you get into the way the book carefully and cleverly engages with the line between sentient life and non-sentient life and how we would treat synthetic life forms manufactured by corporations – that justifies things here. All Systems Red is about introducing us to this world, and our conflicted, socially anxious, uncomfortable hero who just wants to be left alone and watch TV, and not deal with a bunch of humans who aren’t sure if it’s a computer or a human being – a question Murderbot isn’t entirely sure about either.

All Systems Red feels like a trial balloon for the rest of the series, and it’s solid enough that it’s sold me on the idea more Murderbot novels. I don’t know what to expect after this, but I had enough fun here to see what happens now that Wells has established a world and set up looser, more inventive adventures to come – and I’ll definitely be checking them out.


The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver / ****

y648The story of a Free Will Baptist preacher who takes his family to the Congo in the early 60’s to perform missionary work – albeit a story told entirely through the perspectives of his wife and four daughters – Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has a lot on its mind. On one level, it’s a powerful and moving family saga, the story of a family ruled by a domineering, strictly religious man with little interest in the opinions of women or anything that flies in the face of his own theology – and that includes anything African tradition or civilization might have to offer. On another level, it’s the story of how European and American powers worked to topple the democratically elected government of the Congo, manipulating the nation to satisfy their own greed. And while the book nicely interweaves those two levels, I wouldn’t say that it entirely succeeds on both of them.

It’s that second level – the political one – that often gets the best of Poisonwood, pulling the book away from the sharply realized family dynamics and personal struggles that represent the book at its best, and turning it into something more didactic and lecturing, to say nothing of how it tends to turn its narrators into symbols representing different perspectives on Africa. That’s not always the case, mind you – for much of the first, say, two-thirds of the book, Kingsolver successfully immerses the reader in a first-hand view of these revolutions and their effects not on the power structure of the nation, and not on the Western influencers, but on the citizenry and tribes of the Congo. It’s those moments that most succeed in this aspect of the book, demonstrating just what the installation of a dictator wrought about this land.

But, again, too often, especially in the book’s last third, Kingsolver lets her characters become mouthpieces or strawmen, reducing the complexity of her novel into something more lecturing and heavy-handed. And that can be frustrating, because up until the book’s climactic turning point – probably about two-thirds of the way through, I’d guess – I was fairly well sucked into Poisonwood‘s portrait of a family struggling to survive in a hostile environment and forced to choose between adapting to the land or forcing it to break underneath them. Yes, once again, Kingsolver’s allegory is obvious (after all, here’s a white Christian coming to Africa and attempting to “civilize” them while having no interest in them as a people as all), but by telling it through the perspectives of the four young girls who experienced it all – and occasional interludes from their mother, long after the fact – Kingsolver creates a rich mosaic effect, building a world and a philosophy all through these separate incidents and allowing the reader to come to their own decisions about it all. More than that, in finding a rich voice for each character – Rachel, with her flippant attitude and malapropisms; Adah, with her dark thoughts and love of palindromes; Leah, with her desperate desire to please her father; and Ruth Ann, the youngest, who sees everything through the eyes of a naive child – Kingsolver brings not only them to life, but the novel as a whole, turning it into the story of their experiences and how it changed them as much as it is about Africa and the West’s relationship with it. And in doing so, she finds what makes the novel so compelling – this family, and these women, each of whom are shaped forever by their time in this country and the things they see and experience there.

After the novel’s climax – that aforementioned turning point – it goes on for too long, and hammers home the points that were already clear, doing a bit too much “telling” and not enough “showing”. But Poisonwood never becomes a screed, and Kingsolver’s characters and their story are so rich and so compelling that her passion can’t detract from it all. Indeed, with her attention to detail about life in tiny tribal villages, or the way we so often see politics unfolding in hints and allusions, or the style in which she plays with our perspectives on events by only showing us one character’s view and expecting us to extrapolate, Kingsolver’s book is so well-crafted and incredibly well-written that it’s not hard to see how it became so beloved. These characters – particularly the four girls – are so well-drawn, so quickly, that each new chapter feels like you’re sitting across from one of them as they tell you about the things they experienced, and by the time you’re into the book’s rhythms, you truly feel like you know each of them, not just as characters, but as people. It’s a remarkable piece of fiction, one that manages to both tell a compelling story about a damaged family and examine our country’s relationship with Africa, and that’s no small feat.

Does it go on too long? Yes. Does it lose its subtlety – and hurt its characters a little bit in the process, robbing them of some of their complexity? Most definitely. But that shouldn’t hold you back from the book, not when it’s this vivid and descriptive, and this well-crafted as a work of fiction. For a while, you can live in a small village in Africa, seeing the world through the eyes of a naive Westerner who thinks that they know best, even as history is looming in the background – and if that’s not the magic of a book, what is?


Son of a Liche, by J. Zachary Pike / *****

sonofalichecover-mdI get a lot of review books to read these days. Some are good, some are bad, but if I’m being honest, there aren’t that many that are so good that not only do I love them, but that they make the leap from “I enjoyed a free copy of this” to “I would actually buy this for myself.” But J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics really was that good, blowing me away and giving me a truly enjoyable, fun, smart, clever read. Orconomics drew on the tradition of Terry Pratchett to write a satirical novel about the economic bubble, pre-collapse, all in the guise of a fantasy story about a crew of washed-up heroes on a “fetch quest”. (That Orconomics also served as a fantastic riff on RPG’s only made it all the funnier and more enjoyable.) Even better, not only was Orconomics very funny and very exciting, it managed to be genuinely moving and engaging, giving the reader characters that they could truly care about and find themselves invested in.

Now, after four years, we finally have the second volume in The Dark Profit Saga – and it was worth the wait and then some (and also worth me buying it for myself this time). Son of a Liche picks up a few months after the end of Orconomics (it’s all but essential to read Orconomics first; I re-read it in preparation, and was glad I did), and things are bad. Our heroes are largely hated by almost everyone; a necromancer is amassing an army of the dead to assault the most prosperous city on Arth; and that economic collapse is getting more and more likely, as investors find a new way to gamble on policies that are almost guaranteed to fail.

That may sound like a weird disconnect, or like a book that’s too ambitious, and it doesn’t help pre-conceptions that Son of a Liche is nearly double the length of Orconomics. And yet, somehow, Pike makes every bit of the novel work, juggling incredibly inventive action sequences, satisfying fantasy worldbuilding, gleeful silliness, and incisive economic satire, and makes it all work, giving every single aspect of the book time to breathe and the tone it needs to thrive. That’s even more true for Pike’s ability to give his characters development and genuine emotions – the ability to slide from wordplay and RPG trope spoofing to painful, earnest emotional beats is no small thing, and there’s any number of authors who can’t handle those tonal shifts. But Pike makes it look easy, sometimes even sliding in and out of humor in mid-scene, while never detracting from the honest humanity of his characters (even the non-humans, but you get the idea).

So, yes, Son of a Liche genuinely moved me at times – there’s much here about the importance of hope in dark times, or why it matters to do the right thing even when it won’t help the big picture, or why sometimes saving one life is more important than changing the world, and those are lessons we all need at any time, and maybe more so these days. But none of that would matter if Liche wasn’t as exciting, engaging, and as funny as it was. And trust me, this is a legitimately hilarious book, with necromancers running focus groups to better understand how to appeal to their targets, universal laws of irony and bad timing, undead middle managers finding the best spot in the org chart to do nothing, and so much more. Pike peppers his book with silliness and great banter, giving it all a sense of self-awareness and sometimes trenchant observation, while never neglecting his overarching story.

And, oh, that overarching story is outstanding. Like I said, Liche is almost twice as long as Orconomics, but it earns that length and wears it well, never lagging for a moment. There’s a lot more going on here – a tribe of Orcs reeling from the events of Orconomics, a former investment banker coming to terms with his past actions, royal intrigue, and more has been added to the already complex dynamics of our party of heroes, which in turn has grown since the last novel. But Pike juggles it all well, and there’s not really a plot thread that feels underserved nor extraneous. He weaves them all together seamlessly, delivering a genuinely exciting and riveting piece of fantasy that also happens to be very, very funny, and surprisingly heartfelt. Doing any one of those things is hard; doing all of them at once is nearly impossible.

In short, somehow – and I wouldn’t have thought this was possible – Son of a Liche is even better than Orconomics. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s richly detailed, it’s moving, it’s smart, and it’s just plain fun. It’s impossible to go a page without reading something funny, or having a nice character beat, or smiling as Pike demonstrates how good he’s been at building this world and constructing his tapestry. That a book this good is self-published is nearly unheard of to me, and I’ve read a lot of them. If there was any justice, this would be on bookshelves across the country, and fantasy fans would be all rushing to buy this and join in the wait for the third volume in the series. Because let me tell you, Son of a Liche isn’t just “good by self-published standards” or “good by fantasy standards” or even “unexpectedly good” – it’s great, plain and simple, and stands on its own merits as one of the best fantasy series going today. If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett, this is essential reading for you, but even if you’re just a fan of fantasy, read this and fall in love with Pike’s wonderful imagination and style.

Amazon |

Vacation Reads: Part 4 (The October Country / Jane Eyre / Re-Reads)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each. This will be the last in the series, covering my last couple of reads and including some brief capsule reviews of some re-reads I did.

the-october-countryRay Bradbury’s The October Country is often held up as the closest Bradbury ever came to doing a horror anthology, and while not every story here is a dark one, there’s no shortage of nightmares here. There’s “Skeleton,” in which a man becomes horrifying aware of the bones within his body and becomes convinced that they’re trying to take over his life; there’s the surprisingly nasty ending of “The Man Upstairs,” in which a young boy becomes convinced that the lodger living upstairs in a vampire; and there’s “The Small Assassin,” about a possibly murderous infant, and a story that has one of the nastiest last lines in memory. In other words, there’s plenty of darkness here, and while Bradbury isn’t going to be mistaken for the full-fledged horror of a King or a Barker, there’s some wonderfully dark, Gothic material here.

But more than that, there’s the imagination and heart that Bradbury was so known for, and no story better unifies those ideas than the wonderful “Homecoming.” A favorite of Neil Gaiman’s (and the influence on Gaiman’s world is evident), “Homecoming” tells the story of a family of monsters – vampires, ghosts, and more – coming together for a family reunion, all told from the perspective of the one “normal” child in the family. It’s sweet, heartbreaking, and ends on an optimistic and heartfelt note that made me smile. Or take “The Emissary,” about a young boy, confined to his room because of sickness, who experiences the world entirely through his roaming dog and the visitors he brings home – a story that opens with wonder and heart, slowly turns to heartbreak, and then becomes terrifying. And that’s not all – once you add to the collection some stories that show off Bradbury’s rich sense of humor – the elderly woman who refuses to die in “There Was an Old Woman,” or the ridiculous satire of trend followers that is “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” – and you have a wonderful collection that reminds you what made Bradbury so special. Rating: **** ½

492864909As an English major, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the fact that I had never read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It didn’t help that I knew – or, at least, I thought I knew – most of the story already, having absorbed it through references, parodies, English classes, and other books (most notably Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is a must read for any literature fans out there).

Of course, I should have known better; stories, of course, are not about what they’re about, so much as they’re about how they go about it (to paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert). And while I knew a lot of the basics of Jane Eyre‘s plot, what I didn’t know about was the book’s assured, confident narration throughout, turning Jane not into a passive participant in her own life, not into the socially conscious protagonist of a Jane Austen novel, but into someone unique and complex – a woman who demands to set up her own life and be beholden to no one, a woman not defined by her looks but by her mind, a woman who dedicates her life to others who are in need of help, without regard for what it does for her social standing. The argument that Jane Eyre is an early feminist work is an easy one to make, but that doesn’t make it any less valid; Jane is a complex, enjoyable, intelligent, witty, and kind-hearted character, but one who feels fiercely independent and well ahead of her time.

For all of that, I still struggled with Jane Eyre at times; it features that most romantic (the literary movement, not the emotion) of traits: bloat and verbosity. The book has a tendency to belabor things sometimes, with dialogue scenes particularly tending to go on for a bit. In general, there’s a sense that Jane Eyre could probably lose about 10% of its words and improve greatly, but that’s not the fault of Brontë, who was merely writing in the service of her times, and whose book suffers the same faults as some other iconic works. On the whole, though, Jane Eyre lives up to its reputation, feeling groundbreaking and interesting, and giving us a lead character for the ages – one that feels relevant and compelling even now, after so many years. Rating: **** ½

And finally, some brief thoughts on some re-reads I did over the vacation, each of which I’d give an easy five stars, for very different reasons:

  • As I mentioned in my review of The Woman in the Woods, John Connolly’s novella “The Fractured Atlas” (featured in his anthology Night Music) is worth re-reading before you pick up that book. But it’s also a novella worth reading for any fan of horror. Composed of five separate stories, all of which flow together in different ways, Connolly’s novella tracks the history of the titular occult manuscript back for hundreds of years – and the mysterious forces it unleashes around it. From shadowy figures to nightmarish creatures in drains, from faceless children to demonic soldiers, Connolly’s imagination has rarely been allowed to roam this freely, nor has it allowed itself to go this dark. Indeed, the fourth piece of the novella, entitled “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms,” is perhaps the most frightening thing Connolly ever wrote – and that’s not something you say lightly. I’m a Connolly fan anyways, but if you’ve ever been curious, you could do far worse than starting with this incredible piece of horror. Just don’t go in expecting something too light and fluffy.
  • J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics is one of the best review copies of a novel I ever received – a book that wasn’t just “good by self-publishing standards,” or “better than I expected,” but honestly, truly, legitimately great. There’s no small amount of Terry Pratchett here, but Pike succeeds by using Pratchett not as a pure model, but as an inspiration. Yes, he crafts a fantasy world that closely mirrors our own in many ways; yes, he uses the plot of his novel to satirize elements of modern society (in this case, the inflationary bubble caused by investment capital, as well as RPG video game tropes – yes, he does both of those, and does them both ably). But Pike does it in a way all his own, interweaving humor with rich character depth, social commentary with fantasy action, delivering great comic prose that can shift to heartbreak when you least expect it. That Pike gets compared to Pratchett is no big deal; that he holds his own in that comparison, and delivers one of the richest, funniest, most satisfying pieces of fantasy I’ve read in years – well, that’s no small thing. (I’ll have more to say about Pike when I finish his long-awaited second book, Son of a Liche, within the next few days. Short version: it’s every bit as good, if not better, than Orconomics.)
  • What is there to say about Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that hasn’t been said before? It doesn’t matter that I’ve read this book a dozen times or more; it doesn’t matter that, between the book, the TV version, the film, the computer game, and especially the radio series, I could all but recite the story and most of the gags. Every time I open Adams’ pages, I find myself caught up in his weird, hysterically funny world, and I laugh anew as though I’ve never read it before. Even now that its familiarity has dulled its impact among fans, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary this book felt – and still feels, after so many years. Its imagination is incredible, its comedy is hilarious, its writing is sharp and trenchant, and its plotting surprisingly tight. There’s a reason it casts such a long shadow over the world of humor and science-fiction.
  • I think I’m supposed to hate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye now – or, at least, I kind of expected to. Yes, I loved this book in high school, when I empathized so much with Holden Caulfield’s feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger at the world, and disdain for the hypocrisy of the people around him. But I expected to find him whiny and mopey as an adult…and instead, couldn’t help but have my heart break for him all over again. Maybe it’s the way that Salinger’s rambling, easy prose so accurately captures the tumult of emotions that comes with adolescence; maybe it’s the constant sway of emotions that nails the feelings that come with depression and anxiety (I say, from experience). Maybe it’s just the constant sense that the world is broken, and that the innocent need protecting, and that justice isn’t being served – a feeling that hits home all too well. But whatever the case, The Catcher in the Rye worked for me as an adult every bit as well as it did as it did in high school – maybe more so. It’s hard to think of another book that so accurately captures the feelings of adolescence and the pain of depression so universally, even though it’s inextricably linked to a place and time.

Amazon: The October Country | Jane Eyre | Night Music | Orconomics | The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Catcher in the Rye

Vacation Reads: Part 3 (The Big Book of Hap and Leonard / City of Thieves / The Stone Sky)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

51jtwhbpfllI’ve been advocating that people read Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series for a long time, so it’s nice that The Big Book of Hap and Leonard has come out to give me a simple way to let people try the series on for size. A compilation of two earlier collections – entitled, respectively, Hap and Leonard and Hap and Leonard Ride Again – the collection contains two full novellas (Dead Aim and Hyenas), a half dozen short stories, a comic book script based off of one of the stories, an “interview” between Lansdale and his two creations, and an essay by Lansdale explaining the origins of some of the books and the characters. That’s a ton of great material, but honestly, even if all The Big Book of Hap and Leonard contained was the two novellas, it would still be a must buy. The fact that there’s so many other pieces, and so much demonstration of Lansdale’s versatility – a couple of variations on locked-room mysteries, a heartbreaking tale of adolescent cruelty, a brief vignette about the passing of time, and more – is only icing on the cake.

There’s no one who writes like Lansdale out there – no one who can match that rapid-fire Texas banter between Hap and Leonard, no one who can move so effortlessly between light comedy and horrifying violence, between human cruelty and earnest kindness. Maybe that’s what keeps me reading the Hap and Leonard series; yes, they’re incredibly well-written; yes, they’re frequently hilarious, and they make me laugh out loud so often; yes, I love these characters. But more than anything else, there’s a heart to Hap and Leonard that’s undeniable. These are mysteries, but they’re mysteries that refuse to flinch from the unspeakable things that humans do to each other, and the reasons we do them – and that’s no small thing. That Hap and Leonard both do what they do partially because they refuse to not fight the good fight…well, there’s something I love about that, and about Lansdale’s refusal to let racism and hatred win the day. Rating: *****

1971304Long before he became famous for helming a small, independent TV production named Game of Thrones, I knew David Benioff’s name as an author. His first novel, The 25th Hour, quietly floored me when I read it (prior to its superb film adaptation by Spike Lee). And yet, for whatever reason, I never got around to reading Benioff’s second novel, City of Thieves, until recently. And having read it…well, I’m not sure it was worth the wait.

Set during the siege of Leningrad, City of Thieves tells the story of Lev, a young Russian Jew who’s stayed in the city to prove that he’s a man and to defend his hometown. After he gets arrested for breaking curfew, though, he and a fellow prisoner get sent on a fool’s errand: find a dozen eggs for a powerful general, who needs them for his daughter’s wedding.

So far, so good. There’s a lot to love about Benioff’s setup for the novel, which allows him to engage in some dark commentary about war, human nature, survival, and so much more. (The ending to the egg saga is a cruel twist of the knife that, in many ways, is the best moment of the book.) And there’s little denying that Benioff’s sense of time and place are carefully and beautifully constructed. There’s an incredible sense of cold that permeates City of Thieves, a sense of starvation and desperation that’s impossible to ignore. This is a land under siege, but it’s also a Russian land, with all the stoicism and dark humor that comes with the territory.

And yet, for all of that, City of Thieves left me cold so often. Maybe it was the overly contrived, screenwriter-y tics of Lev’s companion Kolya, who so often felt less like a person and more like an author’s construction of quips, sexual commentary, and literary theory. (The ongoing plot thread about Kolya’s favorite Russian writer is a prime example of this, turning into something that felt like a movie’s shorthand for getting into the head of a character, rather than a real thing someone would do.) Then there’s some of the plot mechanics along the way, most notably a game of chess that couldn’t be more foreshadowed and set up without neon lights and arrows involved, and once again feels less like a genuine moment and more like an absurd screenplay idea.

I didn’t hate City of Thieves; the mood and setting of the book are absolutely phenomenal, and there’s no shortage of small little moments along the way that are almost perfect in their simplicity (again, that final moment in the ongoing story will stick with me for a long time, as will the general’s last lines in the novel). But the more Benioff constructs his plot and story, the more obvious the seams are, turning the book into something that betrays its best moments in favor of big, silly, bludgeoning obviousness. Rating: ***

31817749Fantasy series are notoriously hard to end. How do you do justice to whatever big, world-changing events you’ve been setting up, but also provide some sort of closure for your main characters? In other words, how do you balance the macro and the micro – a problem anywhere in fantasy, but one that goes double in the ending? And that was something I was even more worried about when it came to The Stone Sky, the final volume in N.K. Jemisen’s incredible Broken Earth trilogy. Could Jemisen stick the landing on one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in years, if not ever?

Did she ever.

Part of what’s made The Broken Earth such an effective series is the way it’s never lost sight of the personal stakes in all of its saga. Yes, this is a story about a civilization wracked by terrible devastation – devastation that comes along regularly and horribly. Yes, it’s a story of magic users – orogenes, in the parlance of the series – who can control the tremors of the planet, but can also wield that same magic as the most devastating weapon imaginable. And, yes, as becomes clearer and clearer during The Stone Sky, it’s the story of how all of this happened – how humanity may have doomed itself.

But for all of that – and make no mistake, Jemisen’s overarching story is incredible – it’s also always been the story of a mother who is worried about her daughter. It’s the story of a social class that has been rejected for centuries, and who are starting to realize that there is no future for them unless they stand up and demand to be treated as human beings. It’s the story of a young girl who’s realizing the flaws in her parents, and her desire to fix all of the pain and suffering that she and others like her have suffered. It’s the story of how we must sacrifice ourselves for the future, and more intimately, how parents must give and give until there’s nothing left if they want to leave behind a future for their children.

In other words, Jemisen mixes the macro and the micro seamlessly, allowing the two to comment on each other and reflect back and forth, linking the fate of the planet to the fate of this mother and daughter, each of whom is on their own path to wisdom and cataclysmic choices. But it’s also a story about the communities they have built along the way, and the way our friendships can shape us and define us and change us – often for the better – and how trying to survive the world alone is so often a fool’s errand.

All of this sounds vague, I know. But the fact is, for all of the rich lore and the world-building and the twists and the science-fiction that sneaks in and the fantastical elements, what made me love The Stone Sky was that it had all of those elements, and still chose to focus on its characters first and foremost. And by the time The Stone Sky ends, every one of the million small choices Jemisen has made along the way become clearer and clearer, working towards the messages and themes of the books. Even the often-questioned decision to write in second-person, whose purpose started to become clear in the second novel, becomes crystal clear by the end of book three, leading to an unexpected emotional wallop.

That the series can do all of that while also telling a story of the fate of the planet, a war against nature itself, generations of conflict, science-fiction plot threads, and the nature of magic – my cup runneth over. I loved this book, loved this series, and am excited that there’s more Jemisen waiting for me to jump into. Rating: *****

Amazon: The Big Book of Hap and Leonard | City of Thieves | The Stone Sky

Vacation Reads: Part 2 (The Last Days of Night / The Woman in the Woods / Into the Wild)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

the_last_days_night_coverIt’s not as though I wasn’t aware of the intense rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla – one can hardly exist on the Internet without knowing the deep love that Tesla gets as an underappreciated, neglected genius. But for all of that, I didn’t know all that much about the actual relationship between the two men before reading Graham Moore’s surprisingly gripping, vivid historical fiction The Last Days of Night. Using at its focus the legal battle over the light bulb, Moore gives us portraits of Edison, Tesla, and George Westinghouse, following the legal struggles over the future of the light bulb and the various claims of ownership of that idea.

Moore’s smartest move in telling this story is his choice of protagonist: lawyer Paul Cravath, hired by Westinghouse to help defend his claims of ownership. While the focus on Cravath tends to keep our sympathies with Westinghouse over Edison (a sensibility echoed by the book in general), it allows Moore to explore each of these men though the eyes of another party, weighing each of them for their strengths and their faults. As Moore himself seems to conclude, the men are so different, with their different strengths and weaknesses, that they neatly complement each other, with each filling a critical role in America’s development into an electricity-based country. And even if Moore’s sympathies are clearly against Edison, that doesn’t keep him from humanizing him in interesting ways towards the end of the novel, nor does it keep him from finding the flaws – and strengths – of each of these key figures.

The Last Days of Night serves as a solid legal thriller, but its primary interest is bringing this period of time to life. That focus generally serves the book well, even if it leads to some uneven subplots and some lackluster sections of the book (I never really cared about Paul’s love life, and some late-book revelations about a fire in Tesla’s lab felt tacked on and irrelevant in the way they were handled). Indeed, the book often is in service to its history more than its characters, and Moore’s background as a screenwriter often shows through, with more focus given to character’s dialogue and actions than ever fleshing them out.

And yet, none of that stopped me from absolutely tearing through the book, or from being fascinated by the research that went into it or the stories being told. If Moore takes a couple of liberties here and there, and if the book stumbles whenever it gets away from this court case, I’ll take it if it gives me a book this compelling and satisfying, both as a piece of historical fiction and as a novel. Rating: **** ½

the-woman-in-the-woods-9781501171925_hrI’ve raved enough about John Connolly on this blog that you should know how I feel about him: that his writing is stunning and poetic; that his horrors are unmatched, unsettling, and terrifying; that his plotting is strong, but his characters are even better; that, in short, he’s one of the best writers working today in the thriller OR horror genres, and that you should be reading him. So is it any surprise that I loved the latest entry in the Charlie Parker series, The Woman in the Woods? No, it’s not. But the fact that it’s one of the best in the series – if not the best – is no small thing. How many series continue to get better and better as they go? How many series keep improving and topping themselves? How many times can you say that the 16th entry in a series is its best? And yet, here we are.

The plot, as usual, is deceptively simple-sounding: a long-buried woman’s corpse is discovered in the woods, and Parker is asked to help discover her identity and see to it that she’s laid to rest. More importantly, though, he’s asked to discover what became of her child, because it’s evident that this woman gave birth not long before she died. But Parker is not the only person on this trail, and the other party is leaving a trail of butchered dead in its wake as it hunts down the lead.

The Woman in the Woods does more with the overarching Parker mythology than most, making it a hard book to recommend to non-fans. Indeed, from conversations about The Backers to the health status of Angel, from references to the list of names from The Wrath of Angels to the ongoing questions about Parker’s daughter, The Woman in the Woods is partially about the way in which Parker’s story is continuing in the background, without his knowledge. (What’s more, The Woman in the Woods has heavy, heavy connections to The Fractured Atlas, a knockout horror novella from Connolly’s previous short story collection, Night Music; it should almost be required reading for those interested in The Woman in the Woods.)

But even if you didn’t know about Parker’s ongoing saga, The Woman in the Woods delivers everything I love about John Connolly and then some. Are there vague, supernatural horrors that constantly lurk just beyond the edges of the page, suggesting more than is ever confirmed? Is there beautiful, poetic prose that muses on the nature of reality and morality without ever becoming pretentious? Is there the effortless blending of comedic beats and very funny dialogue with the dark tone of Parker’s universe? Is there an unflinching look at the darkness and violent inherent to humanity, and the constant grappling with the question of how we can fight such evil? Is there’s compelling, effective plotting that unfolds carefully and inexorably? There’s all of that and more.

(There is also the ongoing story of Louis’s attack upon a truck emblazoned with the Confederate flag, a story that seems to upset people as “political” as opposed to “justified” and “funny,” which I found it. Also, any suggestion that this felt forced doesn’t consider what it might be like to be a violent, dangerous black man who has been oppressed and dealt with hatred throughout his life who finds a chance to send a message. Nor does it consider that perhaps racism and hatred shouldn’t be viewed as “political” so much as “intolerable,” but hey, you view the world as you want. For me, the fact that an Irish writer gets to the dark heart of American culture and hatred so much better than most Americans says far more about us than it does the author.)

Look: by now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I loved a John Connolly book. It’s beautifully crafted, it’s surprisingly funny, it’s genuinely terrifying, it’s unputdownable, it’s richly detailed and fleshed out. Its characters are brilliant and complex, its plotting satisfying, its mythology rich, its world unnerving and yet instantly recognizable. It’s another brilliant entry in the best thriller series in existence, and you should be reading it. Rating: *****

into-the-wildI’ve long heard that I should read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, often held up as one of the great pieces of nonfiction of the 20th century. The story of Christopher McCandless, who decided to get away from civilization and live on his own in the woods – and his subsequent death of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness – has grabbed hold of something in the public consciousness. Does McCandless represent something universal – a desire for simplicity in lives, and a retreat from the complexities and horrors of modern life? Or is it the story of a spoiled kid who thought he was a survivalist and died a pointless, stupid death that meant nothing except being another example of people who don’t respect the wilderness they profess to love?

The answer, according to Krakauer, lies deeply in the former. Krakauer’s bias here is undeniable, and indeed, Krakauer wrestles with his own attitudes toward McCandless as part of the narrative (more on that in a moment), but there’s little denying that he’s got a lot of empathy for McCandless and what he was trying to do. McCandless viewed himself as a modern descendant of Thoreau, one who saw through the issues with society and its complexities, and longed for a more natural existence, free of the encumbrances and hypocrisies of the modern world. And as Krakauer depicts him, from the elided depictions of his home life (in which much is implied, but would not be confirmed until McCandless’s sister came forward with her own memoir) to his writings, McCandless was painfully, incredibly earnest, espousing his beliefs without a hint of irony or condescension. There’s little denying that, in his own eyes, McCandless respected the wilderness and wanted its simplicity for his own life.

There’s also little denying, though, that it’s hard to read Into the Wild without Krakauer’s bias covering everything. From the overly lengthy closing (including the new afterword) arguments as to McCandless’s poisoning to his multi-chapter story of his own efforts in the wild, Into the Wild is inescapably Krakauer’s take on events, and that can get frustrating. The aforementioned two chapter story of Krakauer’s own Alaskan trip, for instance, is far too long, getting away from the story of McCandless for so long that one starts to wonder if this book is really just about Krakauer. And the arguments for McCandless having been poisoned, while thoughtful and persuasive, feel again too long, as though Krakauer’s feelings about the story rely on how people feel about McCandless.

Because, make no mistake, there’s a lot of dislike for McCandless out there, and a lot of feelings that his death was largely self-inflicted and the result of his own failings – which, in turn, led Krakauer to argue so vehemently in favor of McCandless’s death being an accident, and through no fault of his own. The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle; yes, McCandless was young and naive, and there’s little denying that there’s something appealing and intrinsically understandable about his goals. But even in Krakauer’s depiction, he’s also a young man who thought he could survive on his own, who thought it would be easy and natural to do that, and cared nothing for the advice of others – and went out there deeply unprepared, despite warning after warning. Is there something tragic about that, something sad about the way this dream failed? Undeniably. And when Into the Wild taps into that, it’s an effective, powerful book; it just gets less so the more Krakauer forces himself and his readings into the narrative. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: The Last Days of Night | The Woman in the Woods | Into the Wild