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.

Amazon

Rogue One / ****

rogueone_onesheetaI’m naturally skeptical of the whole “extended universe” of Star Wars. It’s nothing really against Star Wars, which I like pretty well – I’m not an obsessive fan, but I’ve enjoyed the movies on the whole. But it’s not like the original extended universe of Star Wars was particularly great – need we remind everyone of the whole “Chewbacca was crushed by a moon” debacle? And now, with everything borrowing from Marvel’s “shared cinematic universe” thing, everything has to be a franchise, ideally without ever feeling too risky or interesting.

And yet, there’s a lot that’s promising about Rogue One, even though it’s an undeniably flawed movie. There’s the fact that, tonally, the movie feels legitimately different from the other Star Wars movies. Yes, it’s an adventure film, but there’s a different feel to it all, most notably in the ending. It feels like a movie made up of Han Solos, for lack of a better term; it’s a collection of selfish rogues, caught up in this story almost against their better judgment or rationale.

Better than that, though, is Rogue One‘s approach to action, which feels far richer and more ambitious than much that we’ve seen in any of the other Star Wars films. It’s not just that there’s no lightsabers deployed here; the action feels bigger and broader, turning into the first time we’ve seen a true “war” in the Star Wars films. And in Gareth Edwards’ hands, there’s a sense of dread in the scope that we haven’t seen. Just as Gareth slowly doled out the glimpses of Godzilla in his film, Edwards makes great use of the Imperial elements of his battles, whether it’s the terrifying reveal of the Walkers or the dreadful looming of the Death Star. And that doesn’t even get into the instantly iconic scene near the end of the film that finally underlines something that’s been an undercurrent for the whole series.

This all makes Rogue One sound great, and to be honest, whenever Rogue One is letting action loose, it’s phenomenal. But a movie has to have a script and a plot, and that’s where Rogue One falls down. In many ways, Rogue One is a heist movie; it’s about the theft of the Death Star plans that set the first film into motion, and the film’s climax is all about that heist. But any heist has to have a coming together of the crew, and Rogue One‘s motley cast, while enjoyable, never really comes to life more than as archetypes and sketches. Motivations feel rushed at times, most notably in the case of Felicity Jones’s lead role, which feels like she decided to join the Rebellion offstage between scenes. (That’s better than Forrest Whitaker’s non-role, which feels like a blatant nod for some tie-in novel somewhere.) We know who these characters are a little, but not much, and it’s hard to be too invested in their fates when they feel a bit tossed in. It all ends up feeling like a functional script, and not much more, and one that hopes that the director can paper over the holes.

The result isn’t a great film, really. But it’s a promising start for these spin-off films, in that it shows that there’s a chance for these stories to be their own thing – not just more Star Wars, but a chance to find some of their own personality and style. Rogue One isn’t quite there yet, but in its action and style, it’s a step in the right direction, with enough action and fun to keep fans happy.

IMDb

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.

Amazon

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson / ***** 

51enpomf6alHaving read a pretty large swath of Robert Charles Wilson’s bibliography, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that I generally know what to expect from him. Wilson is a big picture kind of author; he takes what could easily be pulp sci-fi conceits – one day, the stars all disappear, all over the world; a series of monuments appear commemorating the future victories of a despotic warlord; aliens arrive at Earth and extend the offer of immortality – and explores them in remarkable depth, watching what would happen to society in the wake of such world-changing events. He explores religious, social, cultural, and even political ramifications, watching how a single moment can change our pictures of ourselves and our society.

And yet, while that aspect of Wilson is completely evident in Julian Comstock – this is, as the novel’s subtitle suggests, a novel of the 22nd century, set in an America that survived after oil ran out by turning back the technological clock, and at the same time, turned itself into a religious theocracy – this is also a wildly different book for him, one that feels more character-driven, more personal, and less sprawling. It’s a story more intimate than any I’ve really seen from Wilson before, and for all of its rich ideas and worldbuilding, at its core, it’s the story of two friends and their lives in this world so clearly inspired by ours, whether for good or for bad.

That different feel is evident as soon as the book’s structure reveals itself as a memoir – and more importantly, the memoir not of our main character, Adam Hazzard, but of his friend, the famous Julian Comstock. It follows our heroes from their unlikely boyhood together, through their times in war, all the way to the source of Julian’s fame – or infamy, depending on who you ask. It’s a humble-feeling book, one that feels like a tribute to a friend, and an effort to humanize an icon. But it’s also a great adventure story, and a coming of age story, as we watch these two boys become men and grapple with their place in the world.

If that sounds more conventional than you might expect from Wilson, well, that’s okay; rest assured, Wilson brings his usual gift for worldbuilding and scope to bear in his setting, as we come to understand more and more not only what 22nd-century America is, but how it came to be. We see how the oil shortages became rebranded as a “Tribulation,” and how the government and church came to unify. We see how the class system shifted, revolving around indentured servitude rather than freedom, and how ideas like science and Darwinism faded from the public conscience – but never went away. And that’s where Wilson finds much of his drama, as Julian becomes a crusader for science and rationalism in a world that doesn’t always welcome it.

All of that would be more than enough for most books, but Wilson brings even more to the book in the voice of our narrator, Adam Hazzard, a sheltered, less rebellious figure who doesn’t always fully appreciate the gap between what he thinks he knows and what’s really going on. (A tip: keep Google Translate handy for any passage of foreign language; the play between what people are saying and what Adam knows is always fun, and sometimes surprisingly illuminating.) Wilson plays with Adam’s naive perspective beautifully, letting him not always pick up on the subtextual relationships between people, or sometimes completely misread a situation – something Wilson never goes out of his way correct. It all works to make Adam a winning, endearing character, one whose sheltered worldview and warm, if naive, perspective give the book a rich flavor all its own.

Julian Comstock may not have the impact or scope of some of Wilson’s best works, but in the end, it may be his richest, warmest, and most accessible book. What he’s gotten away from in scope he’s picked up in characterization and vibrancy, making this one of the first books of his I’ve read that invested me more in the characters and their lives than it did the ideas and impact of its story. It’s a great read from one of the best science-fiction authors working today, and a nice reminder of how great it can be to find those moments when authors step out of their comfort zone to do something different.

Amazon

The Killbug Eulogies, by Will Madden / ****

34596837There’s something great about a book that embraces a constricting, careful conceit and finds a way to make it work, telling a story that couldn’t be told any other way. (For a great example of this, see Joe Hill’s superb short story “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”.) What’s even better is when the conceit is instantly appealing, and Will Madden’s The Killbug Eulogies manages to do both. The idea here is simple: in a war initially reminiscent of that in Starship Troopers, soldiers are asked to deliver eulogies for the fallen, and the book consists solely of those eulogies, with no outside context. That’s a great idea from the get-go, but Madden really runs with it, creating, in effect, a series of short stories that collectively make up a larger arc, story, and novel.

Even better, though, the disconnected nature of the novel allows Madden to take on a wide variety of modes, tones, and ideas, ranging from hilarious to darkly satirical, from reverent to melancholy, from profane to sacred, and sometimes all of them at once. Within pages of the first eulogy beginning, we’re introduced to a soldier½ named Oogo (whose name was supposed to be Hugo, but the letter H was under strict rationing for the war) whose addiction for video game achievements leads to his death as he strives to cap the leaderboard for harvesting the left hand of the bugs. The result is gloriously silly and funny, making digs at so many social trends while still building its world, but it doesn’t prepare you for the next one, or the one after that, or the one after that, each of which finds their own voice, their own themes, and their own sensibility.

Sometimes, that can be a problem. Madden occasionally lets his eulogies turn into exposition, and it feels like he loses track of the thread, particularly in a late eulogy which gets into a long story thread about a captured bug who serves as a poet of sorts. It’s a great story, but gets away from the book’s conceit, and feels like it’s information he wanted to convey but couldn’t quite do organically. Similarly, those disconnected stories can lead to confusion – it’s not clear for some time that each of these eulogies is actually done by the same soldier, even when the tone and verbiage changes drastically in some of them.

And yet, those are both forgivable flaws, given how engaging, how funny, how rich these stories all are. Taken as a whole, Madden’s creating a complicated world, one that only slowly reveals its nuances and unreliability as it goes along. What seems like a cut and dry military conflict reveals itself to be something messier and more savage; the bugs rapidly become more than just cannon fodder; and our heroes…well, there may be a reason there’s so much depravity in these stories. And all of that doesn’t even get into the final chapter of the book, where Madden changes our perception of the whole book with some great – but completely fair – revelations that pull together all sorts of loose threads into a coherent whole, all without ever dodging the dark and silly humor that the book does so well.

The Killbug Eulogies isn’t just great science-fiction, though it’s undeniably that; Madden may seem like he’s just making jokes at first, but by the time you reach the end, you’ll realize just how sprawling, how complex his world building has been, even if it’s only carefully revealed. No, it’s also fantastic – and genuinely funny – satire with a dark bent, a thoughtful take on war, and a great piece of writing, one where form and function are intertwined in a way that leads you to realize that this book couldn’t have been done in any other way – at least, not without being this good, this fun, and this rich.

Amazon

Wayward / The Last Town, by Blake Crouch

There was a trend in Hollywood for a little while – about ten years ago – to approach trilogies in an odd fashion. The idea was to release a mostly standalone film – think The Matrix, or Pirates of the Caribbean – and if it did well, to turn it into a trilogy by filming the next two entries simultaneously. The result was always slightly odd-feeling, with a solid standalone film and then one long story split into halves, complete with the requisite cliffhanger. And more often than not, there was a sense of the unnecessary about those sequels – that however fun they might or might not be, they were less about telling the “whole” story, and more about extending the world of the original not once, but twice.

I mention all of this here because Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy feels so much like it’s following in this model’s footsteps – down to the fact that none of it entirely feels needed. The original novel in the series, Pines, was a blast – a pulpy, twisty mystery about a Secret Service agent who ends up in a strange small town, and can’t leave. And by the time the book laid its cards on the table, things had escalated wildly, leading to a payoff and reveal that pushed way, way beyond what you ever would have guessed. It was a lot of fun, and if it had its flaws – some middling writing, some thin characters – the intriguing story and pulpy fun made up for it. (My original review is here, if you’re interested.)

But when I discovered that Crouch had turned the original book into a trilogy, I was a bit confused. Pines pretty well wraps up its story; while there’s more of this world you could explore, really, things are settled by the end. Our questions are answered. Our hero has made the important choices, and all is settled.

waywardp05But, to borrow from The Royal Tenenbaums, what this book presupposes is, what if it wasn’t?

Wayward, the second volume in the series, deals with the ramifications of the big reveal in the first book, particularly as they affect our main character. If you learned, as he did, something that changed how you saw the world, how would you deal with it? Would you help to keep that secret, or would you fight for the truth? Crouch anchors his book in this internal debate, letting Ethan slowly realize just what his role in this town will entail – and what it will mean that he has to do.

It’s a compelling enough idea to keep the story going, and as Crouch fills in some intriguing details around the edges – particularly as it regards the growing amount of resistance that’s coming together in the town – there starts to be a feeling that this sequel, while not quite necessary, at least intrigues in how it expands on the world Crouch has created. What’s more, it builds to a spectacular climax, one that pays off your patience beautifully – it’s big and showy, but satisfying, and makes you realize what Crouch’s big game is for the sequels. And the cliffhanger he sets up? Gleefully nasty and taunting.

Wayward, then, does what a good sequel should do, and what the second entry in these trilogies tries to do – it expands on the world, it goes deeper, and it tries to set up the big picture of the series. And if it still feels tacked on, it’s a fun sort of tacked on.

Now, if only The Last Town could stick the landing.

the-last-town-coverIn many ways, it’s in The Last Town that my earlier Matrix comparison hits its peak. Like The Matrix Reloaded, Wayward runs with the premise of the first book, taking it to logical extremes and exploring what it would all really mean. And like The Matrix Revolutions did, the last book ignores most of those interesting ideas and plans in favor of an overlong action sequence where a ton of characters die, most of whom we don’t really know or care about.

That’s not to say that the action isn’t exciting; indeed, if there’s one thing Crouch does well, it’s letting his inner horror writer loose as he does here, turning the attack into a visceral, unsettling nightmare. More than that, Crouch starts expanding his point of view, showing what’s going on all over the town, and the result is genuinely gripping, exciting stuff – it’s anarchic, terrifying, and violent. It also, though, ultimately feels a bit excessive and pointless, losing track of the intriguing story and the characters that we’re anchored with, and tossing out a lot of cannon fodder, hoping that we’re more invested in their fate than we are.

By the time we get past the action sequence, Crouch feels as though he could be setting up some interesting ideas – what it means to be a leader in dire circumstances, the harsh choices we’re forced to make, things like that. Instead, his choice for ending is an odd one, feeling both right for the material and simultaneously deeply unsatisfying. It doesn’t feel like a bad choice for the characters, per se, but it does feel like a whimper of an ending to the series. (And that’s not counting the cheesy, very brief epilogue, which could – and should – be easily ignored and skipped over.) And when the ending of a series is a letdown, it has a way of tainting the rest of the series (and once again, the Matrix comparison comes in, doesn’t it?)

It all ends up feeling like a missed opportunity, and while it’s clear that Crouch had some novel ideas about how to expand on Pines, you can’t help but feel that the original book would have been better as a standalone. Sure, the climax and payoff of Wayward is great, but when you don’t have a way to stick the cliffhanger or the ending, you end up feeling as though it retroactively shouldn’t have been done. In short? Stick with Pines as a standalone. If you’re really curious what happens “next”, you can read these…but be prepared for a bit of a letdown by where it all goes.

Wayward: *** ½
The Last Town: **

Amazon: Wayward | The Last Town