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 | JZacharyPike.com
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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

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisen / *****

26228034I was a huge fan of N.K. Jemisen’s The Fifth Season, the first volume in her “Broken Earth” trilogy, in which she created a lush, compelling, diverse, nuanced fantasy world – and then ripped it apart, kicking off her book with an apocalyptic event that sends her characters into survival mode. More than that, though, there was the way that Jemisen used her unusual structure – interweaving three stories with different narrators and time periods – into one cohesive whole, building not only a lush world but also engaging in rich characterization.

The Obelisk Gate, the second volume in the trilogy, picks up almost immediately after the end of The Fifth Season – in one way, anyways. About half of the book follows Essun, the woman we met in The Fifth Season chasing after her husband – the man who murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter. By the time we ended The Fifth Season, we understood Essun to be so much more than she appeared – a powerful orogene (this series’ version of magic users, whose abilities to control the energies of the earth are both this world’s salvation and its biggest threat), a survivor of unimaginable trauma and grief, and a fiercely independent woman who has weathered the world’s attempts to wear her down. That serves her well in The Obelisk Gate, as Jemisen steers the book into territory it touched on in the first novel – the question of whether orogenes, with their supernatural abilities, can even be counted as human – and explores that in complicated terms, questioning what humankind’s relationship is to the earth, and to the other creatures that live there as well. More than anything else, Jemisen asks this question: would the earth be better off without humankind? And what did we do that could cause something like these horrific Seasons?

That’s half of the book. Once again, though, Jemisen interweaves through those chapters a second story – that of Essun’s daughter, on the run with her murderous father. This is an unexpected choice, but a richly rewarding one, one that allows Jemisen to look at how we pass down intolerance or strength to our children, how children learn to define themselves as separate from their parents, and what it means to come to terms with your heritage. More than that, there’s the way that Jemisen is echoing the stories of these two women off of each other, doing a constant compare/contrast that’s equal parts great plotting and rich characterization.

In short, then, The Obelisk Gate is every bit as good as The Fifth Season and then some. Once again, Jemisen’s worldbuilding is unreal, but more importantly, so is her characterization, which gives every character nuance, depth, backstory, and a richness that’s impossible to ignore. There are no easy villains here, no pure heroes, and Jemisen forces us to make tough choices constantly. More than that, though, there’s the way that Jemisen uses modern issues – intolerance, racism, xenophobia – in quiet ways to structure her conflicts, creating obvious parallels with modern society that never turn the fantasy into pure allegory. Instead, Jemisen manages the remarkable feat of creating an incredibly human fantasy novel – one that uses its fantastical elements not as an end unto themselves, but as a way of exploring her characters and their relationships with the world (to say nothing of questions about power, authority, society, and more). I can’t wait to read The Stone Sky and see how this story ends, but more than that, I’m just glad that there’s a lot more Jemisen out there to read.

Amazon

Elai Nelson and the Prophecy of the Child, by Michael Ban / **

51kw-dpqzelThe more I read, the more I’m convinced that one of the hardest things to pull off is first-person narration. Essentially, you’re taking all of the difficulties of natural dialogue and forcing yourself to deal with them over the course of an entire novel. More than that, you’re requiring yourself to sustain that voice and make it engaging and interesting, building your character and driving your plot simultaneously. And the only way to add even more to that is to try to make your narrator funny, because the only thing writers struggle with more than dialogue is how to be funny when you’re writing.

The obvious model for Michael Ban’s Elai Nelson and the Prophecy of the Child is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and that’s a worthy goal to set for yourself. I’ve read – and enjoyed – most of Riordan’s books, and admire the way his books are seemingly effortlessly silly and funny, all while creating a rich world, interesting characters, and strong plots. But to think what he does is easy is to lie to yourself, because when you can’t pull off strong narration, solid humor, or an interesting plot…well, you get Elai Nelson and the Prophecy of the Child.

Elai Nelson has a simple enough hook – a teenage boy ends up on the run and in a fantasy world after his parents are attacked. He’s guided by his sentient toothbrush – a sword in disguise – which seems to be guiding him towards his destiny. Meanwhile, our pop-culture fixated, video game-playing narrator struggles to make sense of this world, and it’s all approached with a bit of ironic distance, a la Riordan, a choice that’s most effective when it’s contrasted with the formal, stylized dialogue of the fantasy world.

That all sounds great, and sporadically, Elai Nelson works okay. The story is fine enough, and moves along at a great pace, even if it doesn’t really “end” so much as it just “stops” (a chapter or two after it should). But Ban never gets his first -person narration to work, and that’s a problem. It feels flat, never coming to life or really flowing in the way you need first-person narration to do. It feels, more than anything, like the dialogue that most writers come up with in their early writing, before they get a natural feel going – and that’s a critical error in first-person narration. That same issue keeps the humor from ever really landing; humor needs a deft touch, and Ban doesn’t really have it, laying it on either too thick or too thuddingly, and while I could see where the jokes and laughs were supposed to be, none of them hit for me at all. More often – and more problematically – they often detract from the book, feeling like they’re there in place of character work or development. (None of this is helped by the fact that Nelson himself isn’t a particularly interesting or likable protagonist – something that doesn’t feel like Ban is doing consciously, which could make him more compelling; instead, he’s just grating, shallow, and not particularly enjoyable to listen to.)

Elai Nelson and the Prophecy of the Child feels like a first-draft of something that could be solid at some point. It needs some revisions and smoothing, and it needs another eye to help read it over and fix the sore points. The framework isn’t bad, and the idea is a good one, but as it is, it’s mainly just tedious.

Amazon

The Blighted City, by Scott Kaelen / **** ½

37905869I can’t claim to know exactly what made George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and its TV adaptation Game of Thrones so popular, but I’ve often thought that part of the appeal came from the way that Martin gave readers fantasy that often didn’t feel like fantasy – or, at least, not what fantasy is popularly conceived as being. These weren’t elves bantering about the role of men in the world, or forces of moral darkness arising in shadowy lands – Martin’s world was full of human beings scheming, thinking, and feeling, and if it was set against a fantasy backdrop, well, the price of admission was easier to pay for a mainstream audience than a more traditional high fantasy novel would have been. (None of which is to say that Martin invented the genre, mind you.) And authors like Joe Abercrombie, I think, have done similar things, giving rise to a new blend of high and low fantasy that’s deeply appealing to readers, giving us all the fantasy elements we enjoy while also giving us characters that we can engage with.

This is a long buildup to discussing Scott Kaelen’s really great The Blighted City, I know, but it’s also helpful, I think, in telling you what kind of book this is. There’s little denying that Kaelen has thought about his world and fleshed it out incredibly well – there is a sense of history to this place, from old friendships to fallen kingdoms, from forgotten villages to old war wounds, and every bit of it feels naturalistic and lived in. Indeed, even as I sometimes (and very rarely) got a little swamped in some of the world building, I never really minded it, because it was clearly given a shape and structure that made it all work. This never felt like exposition dumps or an author cramming in details; instead, it felt like a world slowly revealing itself to me.

But for all of that, at its core, this is a book about a trio of mercenaries (sellswords, in the language of the book) who are given the job of retrieving a family heirloom from a crypt in Lachyla, the titular blighted city. A place of unburned corpses and many superstitions, it’s a place with a reputation that keeps almost all visitors from its gate. But our trio of sellswords – the religious Dagra, the very atheist Oriken, and their leader (and superior fighter, as well as the sole woman of the group) Jalis – decide that the price can’t be beat. Mind you, if they knew what was waiting for them, they might reconsider that…

Look, the plotting here is a ton of fun – Kaelen does suspense and action well, and the way he slowly plays out his storyline is great in terms of pacing and reveals. I have a couple of issues (Oriken and the number of women who throw themselves at him over the course of these pages, with his constant reluctance, gets a little odd), but they’re relatively minor, and that’s largely thanks to how well-written and crafted the characters are. Kaelen brings this trio and their banter – and interpersonal ties – to rich life, making their dialogues about religion or their fears every bit as intriguing as combat to the death or the revelation of what’s going on in Lachyla. That’s not a small thing, but it’s a welcome one to have, and it kept me rocketing through The Blighted City with more attention and interest than I honestly expected it might when I first was offered a copy for review. By the end, I was sad to see the story come to an end, but glad that it ended well – yes, it may be part of a series, but Kaelen writes it like a standalone, and that’s a welcome choice in an era of constant serialization.

The short version, here at the end: I started this review with mentions of Martin and Abercrombie. If you like those, give this a read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the least.

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This is How You Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki / *****

1845874338In 2010, a group of authors published a collection called Machine of Death, all of which revolved around a simple premise: what if there was a machine that told you, with 100% accuracy, how you would die? And it did so in simple little phrases…but maybe they weren’t always literal. For instance, “OLD AGE” could mean the obvious, or it could mean you got hit by a car driven by a senior citizen whose senility should have kept them from driving. You get the idea. The collection was fantastic – I was a big fan – and even if some of the stories got a little redundant (there are definitely a few too many takes on the origin of the machine), it was still a great idea.

Even so, I wasn’t sure we really needed a second collection, which kept me from jumping into This is How You Die for a while. I loved the first, but couldn’t we be running this into the ground? And could the collection really improve on the first?

The answer, it turns out, is a resounding “yes“. This is How You Die looks at the original collection, thinks “What could we do better?”, and then does it, delivering a wildly ambitious follow-up that stretched the boundaries of the theme as far as they could go. No more origin stories; no more redundancy. Instead, the editors challenged the authors to really take the concept and run with it, and what you get is an incredibly diverse selection. One story, John and Bill Chernega’s “Meat Eater”, takes the form of a government pamphlet designed to help children understand the Machine before their required testing. Another, Ed Turner’s “In Battle, Alone and Soon Forgotten,” gives us a fantasy story, telling the story of a young orc who’s tired of being cannon fodder for evil wizards, and wants to be so much more in life. Then there’s “Apitoxin,” by John Takis, who gives us a true Sherlock Holmes story using the Machine.

And that doesn’t even begin to really touch on some of the variety that remains. “La Mort d’un Roturier,” by Martin Livings, gives us a period piece with a brutally dark historical twist I didn’t foresee. Ada Hoffman’s “Blue Fever” gives us a high fantasy feel, telling the story of a court musician who sings about her lord’s death for his glory. Tom Francis gives us the perspective of a supervillain’s henchman who has to find a way to accommodate the death sentences of those fighting his master in “Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence”. And, of course, there’s Richard Salter’s incredible “Your Choice,” which gives us a Choose Your Own Adventure story that manages to be both incredibly gripping, well written, and also conveys the power of the Machine in a way that’s hard to describe.

There’s literally – and this is an incredible rarity – not a bad story in this collection, and what’s more notable, not a one that’s like any of the others. From fantasy to science-fiction, from steampunk to high school drama, from animal violence to heartbreaking relationships, from love letter to science to military combat, every story finds not just a new angle on the Machine of Death, but a whole new approach, period. It’s the best possible outcome of a collection like this – it gives you more range and variety, and shows you just how far you can take a single premise and what you can do with it. I absolutely loved it, and I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but it’s head and shoulders above even the great original collection.

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