All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders / *****

512les0yullBefore I write this review, I want to tell you about something I hate, and something I love. (Don’t worry. This is relevant, I promise.)

  • One Thing I Hate: When I was a kid, I hated going to the bookstore and seeing one big section labeled “Science-Fiction and Fantasy.” These were wildly different genres to me (an admitted nerd), and I found it baffling that we shoved them together, considering they had little, if anything, in common, apart from perhaps the perceived audience.
  • One Thing I Love: The more I read, the more I love books that refuse to abide by genre boundaries, and the more in awe of them I am. Writing in a single genre is hard enough, but mixing your genres can be doubly hard, to say nothing of the risk you take in alienating an audience that doesn’t want unexpected shifts. But for me, there’s something exhilarating about books that defy expectations and easy categorization, because to me, that’s what life does.

So, what does all these have to do with All the Birds in the Sky, the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders? Well, Anders’ novel does that thing I love, and more than that, it would be one of the only books I know that easily would fit in that strange hybrid genre bookstores created, because it’s that rare book that mixes science-fiction and fantasy elements seamlessly, interweaving the two and playing them against each other in rich and satisfying ways. And if that’s not enough for you, it’s a coming of age story, a quiet romance, a YA novel, a dystopian/post-apocalyptic tale, and more, all while completely working in a way you wouldn’t expect from something that ambitious.

So what is this book about? It’s best to go in relatively cold, so I won’t go too much into detail, beyond telling you that the book’s early pages focus on the friendship between Laurence and Patricia, two kids who’d be comfortably labeled as “outcasts” by most of their peers. Both come from dysfunctional homes; both are more talented than they’d first appear; both enjoy the company of the other, who seem to accept them for who they are. But what we know, and Laurence and Patricia don’t come to understand immediately, is that they come from two different worlds. Because while it’s evident from the early going that Laurence is a techno-geek, one who makes two-second time machines and artificial intelligences, Patricia’s talents seem to be more fantastic and supernatural – indeed, they seem to be drawn from the world of witchcraft.

That conflict – between science and magic – makes for fertile ground, and All the Birds in the Sky embraces it, letting that schism and divide drive the novel as it develops in wild an unexpected directions. And every time you think you have a handle on it, it slides away from you and evolves. Oh, you think it’s a YA tale about two friends coming to terms with their destiny? No, that’s only the early going. Oh, it’s something in the vein of The Magicians, with the underground world of magic and how we connect to the real world and ourselves? Nope, it’s not that either, nor is it an easy tale about how science can save the world from our worst impulses. Indeed, one of the great joys of All the Birds is seeing how the book constantly defies expectations, evolving and shifting while remaining true to its characters and its themes, all throughout.

Enough can’t be said about Anders’ craft, which doesn’t just create a lushly imagined and crafted world, but populates it with memorable characters down to the smallest supporting role. More than that, there’s her wonderful command of tone, which can slide from comic hilarity (a casual reveal and apparent side story in the early going about a man at the mall is laugh out loud funny and absurd) to heartbreaking, from wondrous to nightmarish – but every one has the same command of craft and ability. And more than that, there’s the amazing story, which spans years and half the planet, and touches on man’s responsibility to the planet, science ethics, redemption, and more, all while never losing sight of these two characters and their bond. It’s rich, imaginative, wild, and more than anything else, it’s incredibly humane and beautiful in ways that just made me smile. And that, I think, is the best thing about it – the top of a very long list of great things. (Well, that and the fact that this is Anders’ first novel, which hopefully presages a long career to come.)


Fiend, by Peter Stenson / **** ½

9780770436322You could easily be forgiven for passing on Fiend as soon as I tell you that, yes, it’s a zombie novel. And yet, Fiend is the reason we never write off genres: because there’s always a chance that someone can do something wonderful, new, and fresh with it. Because while Peter Stenson has, nominally, given us a zombie novel, Fiend is also a novel about drug addicts – specifically, it’s a novel about meth addiction, with all the bluntness, black comedy, and unapologetically awful behavior of something like Trainspotting, married with the nightmarish reality of a world in which anything even close to “normal” society is gone.

Indeed, it takes a little bit to realize that Fiend isn’t just a drug novel in which our characters are hallucinating the horrors as a result of their meth habits. But very quickly, it becomes obvious that Fiend is a marriage of books: it’s a bleak, unrelenting portrait of addiction and what it does to people and their relationships; it’s a twisted, broken love story between two irrevocably damaged human beings; and it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie story, full of zombies that emit mad chuckles instead of groans. And if you’re wondering exactly how Stenson ties all of these things together, it won’t take long to realize that Stenson is using the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for the devastation of addiction, which turns you away from other human beings and into a self-destructive spiral in which all you care about is the next big score.

And make no mistake here: Fiend pulls no punches in its recounting of the methhead lifestyle. Stenson is a recovering addict himself, and every page of Fiend feels like the voice of experience is pushing through, depicting addiction with honesty, a certain black humor and self-reflection, and a refusal to pretty up any of the details. The result is a book with absolutely abhorrent characters, ones with whom it’s almost impossible to empathize, even as we recognize the poor choices that led them down this path. Again, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Trainspotting, which does so much of what Fiend does – depicts both the appeal and the bleak reality of addiction, all without judgment being passed except by the characters themselves…except that Stenson plunges these characters into a world where their drug habits might just be the only thing worth living for anymore, and where the pockmarked skin and rotting teeth of the addicts pale in comparison to the cackling dead outside in the dark.

In other words, Fiend is two books in one, and lets them play off of each other beautifully, letting the horrors be underlined by the selfishness (and self-destructiveness) of the characters, just as the realities of addiction are played out on operatic scale in the background as the world crumbles. And best of all, Fiend finds a grounding, investing us in our main character’s last grasp at a healthy relationship in the midst of all of this – and giving us one thing to actually hope for in the midst of all of the awfulness.

Let’s be blunt: Fiend is full of unsympathetic characters, lots of profanity, graphic violence, explicit drug use, and unblinking looks at how far people will go for drugs. It’s scary, violent, brutal, nasty, and incredibly bleak. It’s also darkly funny, incredibly thoughtful, reflective, unapologetic, and beautifully literate in a counter-culture sort of way. It’s a book that is undeniably not for everyone. But if you’re open to what it offers, it’s a fascinating read, one that tells an honest story about addiction by fictionalizing it, and one that finds a new window on a classic horror by turning it into something even scarier. I absolutely loved it; it’s not like anything else, and that’s undeniably a good thing.



Samurai Jack (Season 5) / *****

samurai-jack-posterI won’t lie to you: my first reaction, as the credits rolled over the last episode of Samurai Jack that we would ever get, was disappointment. Oh, sure, we got an ending, but it was a weak one, tucked into an episode that felt rushed and hurried. No, I didn’t mind the Pyrrhic nature of the victory, and I loved the beautiful, haunting final minutes of the episode. But that final showdown – was that really how it ended? It was…well, it was anticlimactic, and a bit hurried, and just…I dunno. It was a bit of a fizzle.

But then, right after the credits rolled, Adult Swim ran a promo for the marathon they were going to do of this entire final, revived season – a season that we had had no reason to ever expect, a season that gave us closure on a show that I, along with many others, had thought would simply fall between the cracks of time. And as this long promo ran, and recapped the great season, it drove something home to me: to focus too much on the ending of Samurai Jack is to miss the greatness of this final season, and to miss the joys that this show brought me, week in and week out.

See, Samurai Jack was never a show about its story. Nominally, yes, it was the story of a samurai trapped in the future, where the warlord he opposed had become the cruel ruler of the planet. But in reality, it was a show that lived and died by its style, that succeeded not because of what was happened, but how it all happened. This was a show that eschewed dialogue, that let everything be conveyed visually, that wasn’t afraid to embrace dark screens, or stylized animation, or to toss out visual gags when unexpected. But more than anything else, Samurai Jack was a show about style – about the way it told its story. (The example I always fall back on is the episode about the blind archers, in which Jack learns to fight blindfolded – a feat the show conveyed by letting the screen go black, only to have the elements fade in as he heard them and identified them by noise. You can watch the clip here, if you’d like.)

And really, season 5 was no exception to that; it was a triumph of astonishing style, with multiple sequences every week that took my breath away. From the jagged shadows of a bloody Jack being tended to be a wolf to an underground cavern scored to a Morricone-inspired tune, from the haunting and beautiful final images to the oil-style painting that capped the penultimate episode, Samurai Jack made its way by telling a story visually, letting animation do the heavy lifting and letting the voice actors support the images, rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, season 5 of Samurai Jack told a rich story, following up on a hero whose isolated, lost nature has only become more pronounced and haunting since the last time we met him, with madness settling in around the edges. This is a hero who cannot return home, who cannot protect his family, and who seems destined to forever wander the earth, isolated and alone. And over the course of season 5, we watch as Jack struggles to figure out his purpose, and what his quest even means. We see what first appears to be fan-service cameos, only to realize that what showrunner Genndy Tartakovsky is doing is showing us that Jack has changed this world, and for the better. And best of all, we watch as Jack finds an equal – another outcast – and for the first time, meets a kindred spirit.

And yes, it all built up to a fight that was somewhat anticlimactic. But the longer I’ve thought about that, the more okay I am with that fact. Aku may have been the villain of this story, but he was never Jack’s true nemesis. Indeed, Jack’s greatest nemesis of season 5 may have been himself – a warrior version of himself cast into doubt, into questioning, into a sense of hopelessness – and into a funk where he couldn’t even be sure he was the hero any longer. Tartakovsky drove that question home beautifully, as Jack’s sword, for the first time, began to slice not just robots, but also human beings. That’s heady, complex fare, and Tartakovsky doesn’t give us easy answers to it all, showing both the brutality of the fight and its necessity.

And so, by the time Jack fights Aku, it’s all over but the shouting. Jack has unified himself, found a purpose, pulled himself together, and realized his meaning. Why shouldn’t the fight be fast? This was never about Aku vs. Jack. It was about Jack’s journey, and what it would make of him by the end – a choice that makes the finale’s final moments of quiet and peace all the more effective. For all of the drama, for all of the action, for all of the imagination, the show’s final moments give us closure on Jack itself – and it’s the perfect way to end it.


The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey / ****

the_girl_with_all_the_giftsYou could be forgiven for passing on The Girl with All the Gifts – after all, don’t we have enough zombie fiction out there already? Hasn’t pretty much every version of this story been told, to rapidly decreasing returns? And yet, I’ve been hearing nothing but positive reactions to The Girl with All the Gifts in both its film and novel forms for a while now, giving me the sense that this was something new and fresh, a zombie story that breathed fresh life into the genre. And by and large, those reactions were correct, at least for the novel; while Girl has some flaws and shortcomings, it’s gripping and imaginative, and so much fun – and so different – that it’s not hard to overlook them in favor of the great book you’re getting.

Exactly how much to reveal about the plot of Girl seems to be up for debate – indeed, many would argue that even revealing that it’s a zombie novel is a spoiler, despite it being revealed within the first few chapters of the book. But in the interest of playing cards close to the chest (even though I’ll say I knew the basic premise of the book going in, and it ruined nothing for me), I’ll simply say that Girl opens in a school setting, with a series of students going through their lessons. But it doesn’t take long to realize how much is off about these lessons – not just the lessons, but the sealed off military base in which they’re occurring, or the cells to which the children are carted – yes, carted – when the lessons finish. Yes, something is odd about this, but it certainly seems like a safer place than beyond the fences. Of course, that’s before classmates start vanishing one day.

That’s probably enough to get you started, but don’t worry – if you think you know where this is going (and again, I did before I even read it), Carey’s smart enough to never be too precious about his reveals, or to draw things out for too long. Instead, Girl constantly evolves and changes in front of you, doling out its reveals and reversals at a great pace, and letting the dynamics constantly change, keeping the reader on their toes without fail. Whatever the status quo is at any point in the book, don’t get too comfortable; Carey’s plotting is going to keep it changing and shifting, and keep the book compelling.

And yet, the book never feels episodic; thematically, it’s rich fare, with questions being raised about the nature of the zombie virus, and the distinction between us and the. That’s a classic zombie trope, but Girl echoes Richard Matheson’s essential I Am Legend in the way it approaches those issues, diving into the zombie virus with a love of scientific explanation that pleased me to no end, and giving me a biological reasoning behind zombies that was so obvious it stunned me no one had used it before that I could remember. But not content with using Matheson’s ideas about science-based horror, Carey also blurs the lines between zombies and humans, raising questions about our actions, morality, and where the line between monster and hero really comes – and delivering a knockout ending that took the book from “good” to “pretty dang great” in its perfection.

Look, for all of that, Girl undeniably has some faults, most notably in some of the supporting cast that work fine, but never great (I’m thinking especially here of the book’s chief antagonist, who needed just a little more tuning to keep her from being cartoonishly evil; as it is, you can see what Carey was going for, but it doesn’t quite work), and the action sequences are passable, not much more. But for all of that, it’s a blast to read, and more than that, it’s a reminder that even the most tired of genres can still be brought back to life with enough imagination and a fresh take.


The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller / *****

41gu1e0i18lPost-apocalypse stories have come in and out of fashion over the years, but it’s hard to think of a more popular one that’s gained as much traction as The Walking Dead. (I know this seems like a tangent, but bear with me.) And with my love of horror, people always get a bit surprised when I told them that I quit The Walking Dead about two seasons in, and never regretted it for a moment. The reason, though, is simple: I realized early on that, as was evidenced in both Kirkman’s source material and the TV series, the series was little more than “misery porn,” devoted to breaking its characters and rubbing our faces in the worst of humanity. And look – I’m a horror junkie. I’ve seen some twisted films, met some insane villains. But the thing about horror novels and films is that they’re finite; they tell a story, and then they end. Meanwhile, I realized that The Walking Dead was intended to be unending, which meant that it would just be a constant succession of horrors, all constantly trying to outdo the last, leaving the viewer in an arms race of misery and horror. And honestly, that’s the last thing I need in my life.

So what, you’re asking, does any of that have to do with The Dog Stars?

Like The Walking DeadThe Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic story, although one without zombies. No, this is closer to Stephen King’s The Stand, where a disease has wiped out much of the population of the planet. And as you’d imagine, survival has become difficult. Luckily, Heller’s protagonist – a pilot named Hig – has teamed up with a survivalist named Bingley, the sort of person who spent his entire life planning for just something like this, and knows exactly what he needs to do. Bingley is the sort of person who would thrive in Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse: he’s careful, thoughtful, proactive, shoots first and asks questions later. He’s armed to the teeth, self-sufficient, and trusts no one but Hig – and even that is only because the two men can help each other.

But here’s what separates The Dog Stars from The Walking Dead, and why I loved it so much: this isn’t Bingley’s story. Instead, it’s Hig’s…and Hig doesn’t want to live in the same world that Bingley does. I don’t mean that he’s suicidal, although you could forgive him for being so; it won’t take long for you to realize how much Hig lost when the world fell apart, and to say that he doesn’t exactly love Bingley is an understatement. (He does have his dog, though, and it’s not hard to see his dog as the band-aid that he’s using to cope with things – something Hig himself admits as well.)

No, what I mean is that Hig fundamentally can’t – and doesn’t want to – be Bingley. He’s an optimist at heart, someone who wants to help people, who hopes that Bingley’s armaments and defenses are for naught, that you can trust the people you meet. That’s not to say that Hig is an idiot or naive. He’s not, and Heller makes that distinction clear quickly. But he’s not a bleak survivalist, either; he wants to give the world a chance, to do more than just survive and stay alive – he wants to find something more to live for than just living for its own sake.

And if that was all The Dog Stars was – the conflict between Bingley and Hig to see which point of view was right – that, in of itself, could be fascinating. But it doesn’t take long for us to begin to see that Heller has more on his mind, as Hig shows himself capable of ruthless behavior, and Bingley becomes more than just a violent boor. And that takes Heller’s world up a notch, as we embrace both the complexity of their new lives and the nuances of their character…and just when we have a handle on that, a lot of things change, and the book evolves into something else again.

I don’t love the way The Dog Stars is written – the conceit is that Hig suffered from a massive fever that damaged his brain a little, and his writing can be a little unfocused as a result – and for a bit, I wasn’t keen on continuing. But as I went, and got more used to Hig’s voice, I started warming to the book, which may end up being the warmest, most hopeful apocalypse book I’ve read in some time. Make no mistake: The Dog Stars never gets absurdly cheery or strains credulity, but it also tries to find a place for hope, human connections, and kindness, even in the face of massive destruction. And it’s hard not to love a book that does that, especially when so much fiction defaults nowadays to bleakness and grim outcomes. (Again, I don’t mind it in some books; what I mind is the ubiquity of it.) More than that, though, The Dog Stars works because it lets its characters live and breathe, defying easy categorization and summary. It’s not a book that gives us easy heroes or villains; sure, some of us (particularly in these politicized times) might be closer to the hopefulness and generosity of Hig, while others are the stern, safe Bingley…but maybe there’s something necessary in each of us. And that’s a nice message to find in a book, even before it creates a rich world, interesting characters, and tells a great story.

I can’t recommend this one enough; yes, you may think you’re tired of post-apocalyptic tales, but maybe that’s because you haven’t read one that looks at the apocalypse as less of an ending, and more of a chance for a second start.



Landquaker, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

landquaker_coverI’ve been reading Dean F. Wilson’s Great Iron War series since the beginning now, and since that beginning novel, I’ve grown more and more engrossed by his complex tale of the war between a well-armored Resistance and a race of creatures best described as Demons that have taken over the Earth. Over the course of the series, Wilson has spun a compelling tale of what’s almost essentially one long war, with each book largely dedicated to a single front of that war and a given effort by the Resistance.

And yet, from the beginning, I’ve often said (here’s my reviews of books one, two, and three) that Wilson’s series suffered a bit too much from a lack of backstory, and that while the story was always easy to follow and understandable, it still felt as though we were thrown into the middle of a situation we never quite understood. What’s with these “Demons”? Is the entire world like this? Are there people beyond the Resistance and the Regime?

Landquaker surprised me – in a good way – by actually taking on a lot of these questions, and providing some interesting answers along the way. Like the other books, this one is focused on a primary objective – the titular tank, a powerful weapon of the Regime’s that needs to be destroyed – but Wilson does something different this time, allowing the Resistance to start looking for allies in the tribes outside of the major cities. This gives us a window into Wilson’s world that we’ve been deprived of so far, and it’s a fascinating one – one in which the machines are moved by literal spirits, where the use of magic is more complicated and more primal than we would have thought. More than that, though, Wilson gives us more glimpses into the life of the Demons and the Regime, letting us see for the first time part of what motivated these creatures to come to Earth.

What makes this work, though, is how Wilson handles it; none of this feels like forced-in exposition or infodumps. Instead, it all fits organically into the story, as characters banter, circumstances dictate a change in strategy, and so forth. Do I wish some of this had come earlier? In some ways, yes…but Wilson’s choice to use it here is effective, and nicely broadens his world when we least expect it, and forces us to start thinking about some of our assumptions about the Regime. It’s nicely handled, and satisfyingly engaging.

As for the action that Wilson’s so good at? That continues to deliver, with Wilson bringing out a three-point front in the book’s climax that never confuses the reader, no matter how complex the plan – and the reactions to that plan – becomes. There’s an art to action, and even more of an art to wartime action, and Wilson does it right, keeping the reader oriented at all times and giving you both the bigger picture and the more intimate personal front.

I’m not sure how much longer The Great Iron War will last; the end of this one certainly seems as though things are escalating quickly, and possibly out of control. I’d be surprised if Wilson didn’t have an end in sight; this doesn’t seem like an open-ended series. Nonetheless, it’s become an interesting, engaging, and exciting series, and one that I’ve really come to enjoy a lot over the course of these books. It’s gotten better with each successive entry, and that arc shows little sign of stopping anytime soon. And I’m excited to keep on enjoying them as long as he’s writing them.


The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

17059277-_sy540_Justin Cronin’s Passage series has always been fascinating for its refusal to easily be pigeonholed into any one genre. On one level, it’s an apocalyptic horror epic, one in which a tribe of vampiric creatures has wiped out most of the population of the Earth. On another level, it’s a survival story, one in which people are working to rebuild civilization in the face of unimaginable disaster. And on yet another level, it’s a rich character drama, one in which people’s choices and character arcs drive the action every bit as much as the threats around them.

That refusal to stick to any one genre is both the best and the most frustrating thing about The City of Mirrors, the final entry in the trilogy. At times uplifting, at times heartbreaking, at times terrifying, The City of Mirrors takes all of Cronin’s habits to extremes. This is a book that features the most terrifying and nightmarish sequence of any of the novels to date; it’s also one which dedicates a huge percentage to the backstory of its major villain – a backstory which is mainly about a young student navigating his complicated relationship with his friends and struggling with his attraction to one of them.

That means that City of Mirrors can often be frustrating, even while it’s constantly engaging. Cronin’s prose remains solid, and his willingness to focus on character depth has always been one of the pleasures of the series. Every character, no matter how major or minor, gets respect and a fully realized backstory; it’s a choice that’s paid off again and again in this series. The choice to go to this level of depth is a somewhat strange one, and one that undeniably hurts the pacing of this book. And yet, once you finish the book, you start to realize that Cronin has more on his mind than simply wrapping up his apocalyptic epic.

Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cronin had ended the series already. (Spoilers for The Twelve follow.) After all, by the end of the previous book, The Twelve, the titular Twelve – the original infected – had been destroyed, and peace seemed to be inevitable. Yes, Amy’s fate was up in the air, as was Alicia’s, but the story seemed to be at a sort of ending point. (Spoilers end.) Indeed, it’s a feeling shared by many characters in the novel, who feel that the story is at an end, and that humanity is finally entering a world of peace and rebuilding.

But The City of Mirrors reminds us that there’s one major threat still surviving, and focuses on that threat: the originator of the plague, a creature only known as Zero. And in Cronin’s hands, this final battle is as much ideological as it is physical. Is there any reason for hope? Does humanity deserve to survive? What, exactly, does survival mean, and at what cost should we attempt to survive? And what part does hope play in all of this? Cronin takes on the questions that underlie so many apocalyptic horror tales – from The Stand to The Fireman to The Walking Dead – and makes them part of the text, thus justifying the time spent on Zero’s backstory. Yes, it’s long, and it sort of wrecks the pacing…but it ends up being central to the philosophical battle at the heart of the novel.

That conflict extends all the way to the ending of the book, which finds Cronin looking at the far larger picture as to what it all means. It’s something he’s been hinting at all through the series, and yet that final section of The City of Mirrors is nonetheless quietly moving, giving us a true epilogue to the story, and an ending that nicely brings his themes together. The endings of apocalyptic tales are always complicated – just look at the three very different endings (or lack thereof) of the titles I mentioned above – and it’s rare to find one that moves so strongly toward optimism. And yet, it works here, giving an ending that both wraps up the story and feels emotionally satisfying. The City of Mirrors is an ambitious book, and one that’s far more “literary” and less conventional than its predecessors. And yet, nonetheless, it sticks the landing for the trilogy, satisfying the reader on a variety of levels while still providing the thrills and excitement we’ve come to demand from the series. It may be a little lumpy at points, but I’ll forgive that for the level of satisfaction that I got from the book as a whole.