Sent for Life, by Jason Turri / * ½

51gc2uq-m6l-_sy346_One of the common issues I’ve started to see among independent authors, especially those on their first or second book, is not knowing how to balance ambition and plotting. There’s a sense sometimes that they think to themselves, Well, I have all of these great ideas – why not put all of them into the same book? But the result is often an overstuffed, jumbled read, one that leaves you wishing that the author had focused on any one or two of the ideas in depth instead of throwing them all into the same book and doing none of them justice.

Such is the case with Sent for Life, Jason Turri’s debut novel, which follows a young scientist as he creates a vaccine for a deadly disease sweeping the world, gets framed for murder, discovers a secret cloning operation, gets told that he’s going to be sent to an alien world, discovers a conspiracy behind that launch, discovers a separate secret plan on that alien world, helps to save that world from a deadly asteroid – and all of this (and plenty more, including a few twists) happens in 300 pages. If that sounds like a lot to cover, well, it is. And every time you think the book is about to dig into a single plot thread, it swerves onto something new, until I really got frustrated figuring out who the plot’s villains were supposed to be, and why it would spend so long on things that it had no interest in paying off.

That world-shaping disease? Barely matters to the book. The framing of him for murder, and the slowly uncovered motivation of the villain behind it? Discarded as soon as the character gets ready to move onto the alien world. And again and again and again, the book jumps from plot to plot. There’s something admirable and enjoyable about a book that’s so ambitious and eager to do so much, but as a reader, there’s also a sense of frustration as you deal with a book that has no idea what it wants to be about. (That even becomes more of an issue as the book randomly breaks from its first-person narration without warning at times, without rhyme or reason.)

Not helping things is that our hero is…well, “flawed” would be putting it mildly, and it’s never quite clear how much we’re supposed to dislike him. If the answer is “a huge amount,” that would be great; between his habit of describing every female in terms of her looks (all are “beautiful” in various ways) and his constant whiny, wheedling pressure for all of them to sleep with him regardless of their interest level, he’s undoubtedly a slimeball. But that’s pretty tame compared to his behavior when he gets to the alien world, where he introduces drinking, drugs, and wet t-shirt contests for his own entertainment among a species that knows none of these things. Far from being funny or endearing, it makes him a fairly repellent figure, and his ego as he approaches basically every situation makes him hard to root for.

There’s some interesting ideas in Sent for Life – any number of which could have made a single really fun book. But putting them all together, and the sheer revolting nature of its hero, really keeps the book from being something I can recommend. I think Turri has great ideas, and he seems like the kind of author who can learn from his mistakes – hopefully he can see the issues with Sent for Life and learn from them in the future.

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Monsters of Venus, by Martin Berman-Gorvine / ***

513gh0jx4ul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Monsters of Venus boasts a pretty great premise – it’s a science fiction tale set on Venus, but one created from the mind of a Polish Jew alive during the rise of the Nazi party. Desperate to escape, her pulp tales took on a life of their own, and she ultimately escaped into the world she had created, along with a couple of other girls – and she can still make changes to this world by writing them on her typewriter and having others read it. But now, others have found their way into this universe, and they have more malicious intentions – and typewriters of their own.

That’s a really cool idea for a book, and at its best moments, Monsters of Venus becomes this wonderful piece of metafiction, with characters literally writing their way out of their predicaments. Mind you, it’s worth noting that Monsters of Venus is actually a follow-up to an earlier book entitled Seven Against Mars, which I hadn’t read, nor did I realize going in; the learning curve here is a bit rocky, although you’ll get the hang of everything eventually. It’s just that Berman-Gorvine doesn’t exactly lay out his premise or things that have already happened in any sort of clear, easy way for a new reader.

Unfortunately, that’s also the case for much of Monsters of Venus, which feels constantly jumbled and unclear, with characters bleeding into each other, overwrought accents, and messy action scenes that left me trying to figure out what was going on. None of which is to say that the big picture of Monsters of Venus isn’t a lot of fun – on the macro level, there’s a neat story here, and a lot of cool ideas. But the execution is less effective, with me often confused as to who was where, why certain actions were taken, or what people’s goals were. Add into that a number of literary allusions that feel fun but ultimately distract from the story (I’m still not quite sure what the point of all the Hamlet allusions is, or what they were supposed to mean; while they end up aligning with a couple of characters, the question of what it matters beyond being cute is unclear), and the result is a great idea, poorly executed.

That seems to be Berman-Gorvine’s M.O., though – I said similar things about his Heroes of Earth, which had great ideas but once again felt overstuffed and cluttered. Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, and some really cool ideas; it just feels like it needs some tightening and polishing to make it work as well as it should.

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Roofworld, by Christopher Fowler / ***

9780399180422A London man with a boring job and average life suddenly finds himself drawn into a side of London that he’s never seen before – a place where those who have dropped out of normal life have set up their own alternate society, where the rules are different, life is dangerous and exciting, and there’s nothing but disdain for the “normal” people. There’s a sense of old ways here, a sense that this is a way of getting back to something primal and mysterious, and maybe even magical. But our hero finds himself falling into something he doesn’t understand, and not only this new world, but our own, could be in danger.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “ooh, I’ve read that – it’s Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman,” well, you’re not wrong, really. Indeed, even though Roofworld predates Neverwhere by some time, I couldn’t help but spend a lot of the time as I read it comparing it to Gaiman’s richer, stranger, and altogether more successful novel. It doesn’t, however, really detract from Fowler’s imaginative idea, for this society lives on the roofs of the city, navigating from building to building with ropes and ziplines, and refusing to touch the ground. That’s a neat idea (I constantly found myself thinking of the navigation of Bioshock Infinite as I read), and the glimpses we get of this world are more than enough to draw you into the strange, shadowy society on the roofs of London.

It’s a shame, then, that Roofworld doesn’t have the substance it needs to support the fun and imagination that it promises in the first half. The book’s opening promises all sorts of fun, with a missing book of notes, a dangerous death cult, a series of brutal murders, and an odd couple romance. But by the time I hit the halfway point of the book, I was rapidly coming to realize that Roofworld is in desperate need of some fleshing out. Yes, it’s fun, and yes, it moves well. But the characters end up thin and generic (even now, less than a day after finishing, I’m struggling to remember much about some of them), and the plotting ends up making little to no sense, with the bad guy basically being motivated by…um…evil, I guess. (It doesn’t help that I never quite figured out the point of his evil scheme or what he was hoping to do, and it doesn’t seem like the book wanted us to, either.) It feels like a book that’s had about 30-50 pages of exposition and character work cut out of it, and the result feels like nothing so much as the weak screenplay based off of the fun and imaginative book.

Is there some fun to be had in Roofworld? Most definitely. But don’t be surprised when you end up feeling like it’s got nothing beyond a neat idea and a few fun scenes when you’re done.

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The Road to Rebirth, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

20601427The Road to Rebirth is the second entry in Dean F. Wilson’s Children of Telm trilogy, after The Call of Agon; in fact, not only that, but it opens less than an hour after the previous book ends. And given that Wilson doesn’t really offer a summary of the previous book or any kind of glossary/list of characters, I definitely spent the first couple of chapters trying to remember who was who and where exactly we left things. (I feel like that’s a peril of high fantasy, especially when you have a dense cast of characters and lore like Wilson has created here.) Luckily, though, Wilson’s naturally gift for storytelling allowed me to follow everything that was happening in this second book while slowly reminding myself of the stakes and our characters.

If The Call of Agon was Wilson’s Fellowship of the Ring, with the characters uniting and defining the nature of their threat, then The Road to Rebirth could easily be his Two Towers. His group of heroes has suffered a massive setback, and they’ve scattered to the winds. Some have fallen in their battles; some are greviously wounded; and worst of all, their one possibility for victory – a child who was the incarnation of a god – has died. It’s classic “middle book” fare, as the quest evolves and we expand the scope.

But as usual, Wilson does it in an imaginative, unique way, expanding his story in directions that I never expected. A wounded hero returns home to a kingdom where he never belonged. One character finds himself amongst heroes he only knows from legend. And most surprisingly, we dive into the land of the dead, where the rise of the demon Agon is most imminent. On every front, Wilson expands the lore and depth of his world, fleshing out new gods, new legends, and new complexities.

But the primary story of the book revolves around a desperate attempt to revive the dead god, as a cluster of forces for good huddle in a besieged fortress and try to hold the line. It’s here that Wilson’s knack for action sequences shines through as usual, giving us a chaotic, tense siege where the stakes are always clear and the cost is always known. Battle sequences of this scale are a strength of Wilson’s (see his Great Iron War series), but it’s still nice to see him use those skills in his high fantasy mode and not miss a beat.

While I enjoyed The Call of Agon, there’s little denying for me that The Road to Rebirth is by far the superior entry in the series. Yes, part of that is due to not having to set the stage and offer the exposition necessary for a series like this. But more than that, Wilson’s interweaving of plot threads, plus the central drive, gives the story a quick, solid momentum that I loved. And even better, the story is allowing the themes of this saga – responsibility, morality, our relationships with gods, and more – to find rich and complex expression in its characters. I enjoyed Call of Agon a lot, but Road to Rebirth is fantastic, and just a great read, through and through.

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Vacation Reading

We’ve been on vacation for the past week or so, which means that I’ve had a little more time than usual to get some reading in, including two review copies and a fun little twisty thriller. So, with so much to talk about (to say nothing of the movies and TV I’ve been ingesting), let’s do a few shorter reviews than usual.

894645323Evan Marshall Hernandez’s Breaking the Skies is an ambitious piece of work, especially for a more independent author. In broad terms, it’s a science-fiction war novel, opening its action with the final stand of a revolution set to end the reigning Queen on this planet. Hernandez’s heroes are largely on the side of the Queen for this novel, and yet Hernandez doesn’t necessarily make either side noticeably better or worse than the others. Indeed, many of the book’s pleasures come from the way it navigates moral complexity so well, establishing its heroes and villains clearly while letting everyone by fully realized, complex creations. More than that, Hernandez handles his action well, leaning both into the chaos of the war but also the morality of such violence, grappling with questions about who we ally ourselves with, the tactics we use in war, and humanity’s relationship with this alien planet.

But it’s that planet that makes for the most interesting material in the novel, which leans more heavily into the fantasy genre and brings out the best elements of the novel. Not content with just having complex human characters, Hernandez fills his planet with several animalistic races, each of which has its own personality, culture, and approach to the world. Even more interestingly, Hernandez offers his own variation on Philip Pullman’s daemons, pairing many of our heroes with creatures that are their partners and friends, which often tells you much about the people themselves. And Hernandez spends just as much time on these creatures as he does his human characters, investing them with backstories, culture, personality, and every bit as much richness as the others.

The end result is a rich, well-realized novel, one with enough complexity to the story to keep readers satisfied while never neglecting the world-building and detail that makes a fantasy world come to life. Breaking the Skies definitely feels like the first entry in a series, with sections that feel a bit drawn out at times, and some pacing that could use just a little more momentum at certain points. The sheer number of characters can be a little overwhelming at times, even while Hernandez makes them all work, and it ultimately feels like the book could be a bit shorter and lose little of its strengths. And yet, it’s a solid book that I don’t hesitate to recommend; its sheer imagination and solid storytelling, its great character work, and the fascinating world all work together wonderfully. The shortest, most focused recommendation I can give? I’m more than ready to read the second novel in the series at any time. Rating: ****

the-passenger-lisa-lutzLisa Lutz’s The Passenger kicks off with such a great opening that it’s almost a relief when the rest of the book lives up to it. It’s the story of a woman named…well, honestly, that’s complicated, given how many names she has over the course of this book. So let’s just say that it’s the story of a woman whose husband falls down the stairs and dies in a genuine accident. But she’s a) not that upset to see him go, b) worried that people might think she did it, and most importantly, c) seems awfully nervous for the police to go digging around. So she packs up and hits the road, calls a mysterious benefactor, and gets a new identity. And that goes well…for a few pages, at least.

Honestly, that’s about all I want to say about The Passenger, which is one of those books that are far more fun to read if you don’t know anything about them. Suffice to say, our heroine is on the move, constantly shifting identities based on the events around her, and only gradually revealing to us, the readers, exactly why she’s on the run in the first place. Even better, Lutz constantly raises the tension and the stakes, with dangerous run-ins, suspicious friends, and a kindred spirit who might be using her for nefarious means. It’s a gloriously twisty plot, one that uses every twist for maximum impact, whether to increase our unease or to stun with revelations.

But even better is our heroine, a complicated figure who lives comfortably in a world between villainy and heroism. Not a good person by any means, Lutz’s heroine also isn’t the antihero we might suspect; she’s a survivor, through and through, and as we learn more about her, her actions become more and more understandable. Her narration and pragmatic worldview make for a great aspect of the book, and the perfect companion for the twisty plot. The result is a great read, especially for the summer; it’s light but compelling, twisty but never unfair, dark but never horrific – in short, it’s a complete blast for anyone wanting a great thriller. Rating: **** ½

29468624Christopher Fowler’s Spanky was apparently originally released in the mid 90’s, a fact that feels right, given its central theme of a man who feels that his life has gotten off track and been far from what he hoped for. That was in the zeitgeist in that time, a fact that shows up in so many films of the time (American Beauty, Magnolia, Fight Club, and so on), to say nothing of other books (again, Fight Club, but more notably, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed). And so, in its broad strokes, Spanky‘s idea to marry that male anxiety to a modern riff on Faust, as a twenty-something Briton named Martyn gets offered a chance to turn his life around by a daemon named Spanky? That’s nothing too surprising, in hindsight.

That being said, what makes Spanky so much fun is how it uses its supernatural elements, first with a sly sense of humor, and then for absolutely horrific effect. Spanky starts as typical male wish-fulfillment stuff, but the titular daemon makes for a wonderfully anarchic figure in the midst of it all, playing Tyler Durden to Martyn (in his foreword, Fowler remarks that Fight Club, which came out after this, definitely feels like it’s almost the same book). As Martyn goes through his image makeover, dives into family trauma, and tries to meet women, Fowler keeps everything darkly funny and engaging, letting Martyn’s unease with some of it poke holes in the potentially toxic worldview.

But it’s really the novel’s second half, where Fowler lets the horror side of the story run wild, where Spanky shines. Fowler sets some tough boundaries on Spanky’s abilities, which could easily rob the horrors of their punch. Instead, they only make it better, as Martyn – and the reader – aren’t just subjected to twisted creatures and brutal violence, but thrust into an increasingly unreliable reality where we’re never sure what’s actually happening. It’s a great final act for a wonderfully nasty, fun read, one that holds up even twenty years (!) after its original release. Hopefully its American release will find it a new audience that enjoys it as much as I did. Rating: ****

Amazon: Breaking the Skies | The Passenger | Spanky

Coilhunter, by Dean F. Wilson / ****

51nzzo74xkl-_sy445_ql70_For a while, all I knew of Dean F. Wilson’s work was The Great Iron War series, a rich, involving steampunk war saga that I thoroughly enjoyed. Wilson’s prose was direct and effective – he had a clarity to his prose that befitted his action sequences, always keeping the battles clear, the environment understandable, and the various players clearly defined. What I didn’t realize – not until I read the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Agon series – was that Wilson’s prose was pared down and concise by design, not because that was just his style. Because Children of Agon read like Tolkien – it was epic fantasy, with dense, poetic prose and style to spare.

I mention this because, without that context, it could be easy to dismiss Coilhunter‘s prose as excessively colorful or too much. But within a couple of pages, I realized that that wasn’t a bug in Coilhunter; it was the design, creating a book that lived and breathed its Western atmosphere in every single word. With verbose killers, colorful turns of speech, and all sorts of fun writing, Coilhunter ends up being a lot of fun, and the prose is part of that, creating a rich, lived-in tapestry.

That Wilson is good as Westerns isn’t a surprise; what’s surprising to me is that Coilhunter is a Western in the first place, since it’s technically set in the same world as Wilson’s grim Great Iron War series. Wilson’s taken one of his more fascinating character – the titular Coilhunter, who makes his living as a bounty hunter in the less settled parts of that world – and written a book around him. The plot is pretty traditional fare, especially for the Western genre: the Coilhunter chases bounties, only to find that one he’s taken up could lead him to the killers of his family. But Wilson takes it on with style and panache, bringing his sci-fi steampunk Western world to vivid life, filling the pages with interesting characters and odd locales, and making it stand on its own.

More than that, Wilson has a great lead character in the Coilhunter, whose gadgets, tricks, and lethal abilities make him both a great hero and an exciting one to watch. Like so many Westerns, the question isn’t really if the Coilhunter is going to succeed; the question is, how will he pull it off. Even more to the point, though, Wilson makes his Western world all its own, making it stand out from the Great Iron War to the point where it feels less like a spinoff and more like its own series. With bounty hunter towns, old friends, and spectacular lawless zones, Wilson brings the world – and the characters – to life in a satisfying way, all while peppering things with his usual strong action sequences.

If there’s a knock on Coilhunter, it’s that the story feels more generic and formulaic than I’ve come to expect from Wilson; there’s little sense of surprise in what happens here or how things unfold. None of that keeps the book from being engaging or entertaining, mind you; it’s executed well enough that I tore through it quickly, eager to stay in this world for a while. But I’m more excited to see what happens in the next books in the series, now that Wilson has set the stage and cleared off some of the necessary backstory to get things moving. Here’s hoping it comes soon.

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Blackout, by Marc Elsberg / *** ½

514fntzhxyl-sx316When I was much younger, one of my favorite authors was Tom Clancy. It wasn’t necessarily that Clancy was the best or tightest author; no, what I think I enjoyed was the way Clancy told stories, giving you a sense of the global perspective of events, letting them play out through different lenses, and doing enough research to give all of it a plausible, realistic feel. The result managed to always be gripping, giving even simple stories an epic, outsized feeling, and more than that, making them feel plausible and compelling (to teenage me), as though “this could all happen.”

I thought of Clancy a lot during the novel Blackout, a runaway bestseller in its nature Germany making its way to American bookshelves after several years. Like Clancy, author Marc Elsberg tells his story through a large cast of characters, ranging in nationality and status, and diving in and out of governmental organizations, intelligence groups, and computer geeks both legal and less-than-legal. More than that, like Clancy, Elsberg has done his research, telling not only the story of a covert terrorist attack that kills power across Europe, but diving into power infrastructure, IT security, government alliances, and more to show both the potential and the danger of such an attack. Indeed, it’s not just the original blackout that causes problems; it’s the civil unrest, the difficulties in getting started again, the lasting damages done to a society that relies on electricity, and so forth. And Elsberg’s research gives it all a queasily realistic feel that’s hard to shake off.

So, like Clancy, Elsberg has a knack for big picture storytelling, for research, and for carrying the novel through sheer momentum and kinetic energy. But also like Clancy, Elsberg struggles bringing his characters to life. That’s not to say that anyone here is a bad character; rather, everyone is a bit archetypal, fulfilling their function, and existing nicely within the confines of the plot. But much beyond that, the characters never really live and breathe. We’re invested in them as far as this story gets us, and that’s about all. Whether the villains of the novel and their overwrought philosophical arguments or the greedy executives, by and large, the cast of Blackout functions about like they do in any disaster movie – to be the human face of all of this. That’s not necessarily something that destroys the book, but it does keep it from ever really gripping you the way you would hope. (It also can get to be confusing keeping people straight at times, given that so many of them are similar.)

What’s more, Elsberg works best when he’s got some grounding and some research. His material about the blackout, the attack, and the rebuilding? Fantastic. The rioting, the civil unrest, the random arrests that hold back our heroes? Less so. Again, there’s never anything incredibly egregious or awful. But it can get to be a bit much at times, and the human elements never ground it quite well enough to make it all work.

For all of that, Blackout is still a solid read, and one that scratched that same itch for me that Clancy books did in my youth. It’s a gripping, propulsive narrative, one anchored in enough research and detail to come to life and feel all too plausible. And if the plot gets a little silly sometimes, well, that’s fine; it’s a pulp novel, and that’s allowable, as long as it can keep you reading. And this one definitely did.

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