Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology

An anthology based on a look behind the scenes into the writing process itself, from brain storming story ideas, through the initial drafts, writing group feedback and final drafts. I haven't come across anything like this before. It's a very cool concept and will be a useful tool to budding writers and any readers with an interest in all things 'behind the scenes.' Of course all that aside the story themselves still need to work on their own and I'd say for the most part they do.

A Fire in the Heavens by Mary Robinette Kowal: A priestess of a religious minority group sails across the ocean hoping to help her people escape discrimination by finding the land where the mythical founders of her religion hailed from. However she finds more than she bargained for and there may be a good reason her ancestors fled. A very believable and well-developed protagonist steals the show and is well supported by some well conceived support characters. World-building is solid and the plot is well paced. 8.5/10.

I.E. Demon by Dan Wells:Members of the U.S. military are tasked with field testing new technology which disables explosive devices. However they run into problems when the device malfunctions and they find themselves the target of a very angry gremlin. The weakest story in the collection by a country mile. The two speaking characters are underwhelming, with no real development and the story has very real issues of 'telling' rather than 'showing'. The concept itself is interesting and the conclusion is well thought out but everything else felt rushed. From the writing group discussions it is revealed that Wells was working to a word number constraint but I don't think that is a good enough excuse. The word count should be firmly dictated by the needs of the story not the other way around. 5/10.

An Honest Death by Howard Tayler: A biotech firm has developed a way to cancel the aging process making human immortality a reality. However when when death himself takes issue with this development and confronts the cooperation CEO his security team find themselves in an unprecedented situation. Is it all an elaborate hoax and if not can they protect their boss from the grim reaper? A very strong and well developed core cast of characters were the driving force in this story. The concept was clever and well considered and the pacing was spot on. 8.5/10.

Sixth of the Dusk by Brandon Sanderson. Set in a world where birds raised on archipelago chain grant people amazing abilities. A lone trapper must face up to the end of his world as outsiders seek to learn the source of the birds' ability. When he meets up with a stranded member of the outsider crew he learns that the fate of the island and their world itself is in their hands. Everything I have come to expect from Sanderson on his best days. The world-building was outstanding, the interaction between the two protagonists was believable and wove the various plot lines and themes together. An exceptionally well considered and satisfying conclusion to top it all off. 9/10.

Overall three of the story in this collection are absolute gems and the anthology offers something unique in the way it looks at the writing process. 8/10.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Having survived Sadeas betrayal through the unexpected aid of the bridge four crew Dalinar steps up his efforts to unite the High Princes, knowing that an unfathomable danger is just around the corner. Kaladin the leader of bridge four finds himself assigned as head of  Dalinar's bodyguard. While he doesn't entirely trust him, due to his social station, he knows that bridge four's only hope is for Dalinar to remain alive. Meanwhile Shallan finds herself in grave danger. The ship is attacked by assassins leaving Jasnah dead and Shallan as possibly the sole survivor. She needs to continue her journey to the shattered plains, knowing the very fate of the world could lie in her completing Jasnah's mission.

There is a lot right with Sanderson's second installment in the Storm Light archives series. This very well might be Sanderson's finest piece of world-building combining a vivid-landscape  with a long history and various peoples. These are explored in greater depth than the first volume.

Dalinar, Kaladin and Shallan remain the three main protagonists and the pay off in particular from Kaladin and Shallan as they mature throughout the book is very rewarding. I also enjoyed the exploration in the complex motivations of side characters and groups.

In no uncertain terms this is a large novel. Yet at no point did I find myself experiencing any lag as the plots developed, a sign of exceptional pacing.

There is also an unexpected depth to some of the subplots, as complex issues such as racism are explored in a very mature way.

Sadly Sanderson's biggest struggle remains his attempts to improve the humor in his writing.  There are number of examples where this felt forced and made some of the character's almost 'cartoony' at times. Having said that there were moments when he did get it right, some of the interactions between Pattern and Shallan being the best examples. The only other negative comment I have is the choice of using some words in dialogue which do not gel with the setting and do lead to moments where I lost my immersion in the story.

Overall the second installment of this series is combination of excellent world-building, character development and pacing. Minor issues in forced humor provides a slight distraction at times. 8.5/10.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: Thornlost by Melanie Rawn

After finally winning a place on the summer circuit the members of Touchstone find themselves in a seemingly secure position. In addition to their success on stage they have gained a valuable ally within the royal family. However all is not as calm below the surface. Mieka's marriage is marred by an act of domestic violence that has Cade concerned that they are taking the first steps into one of the horrible visions of the future. The Archduke and his pet group Black Lightening have their own agenda for Touchstone as well.

The centerpiece of the series remains the complex relationship between Cade and Mieka which continues to steal the show. However I found the support characters developed to a very satisfying degree in this installment as well.

The sheer complex historical and social structure of Rawn's creation is highlighted extremely well with Touchstone's role in the movement for women's rights and the hints of the Black lightening stirring up long dormant racial tensions.

This series and this novel in particular are perfect examples of putting character development and interaction at the forefront of a story providing a base for building the plot around. I definitely found the story had a tighter focus than the last installment which I am extremely pleased about.

Overall this is certainly the strongest installment in this series to date 8.75/10.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: The Merchant Emperor by Elizabeth Haydon

With The war of the known world upon them Ashe and Rhapsody, leaders of the Cymrian alliance, face danger on all sides. Rhapsody had fled to the safety Ylorc hoping that the fortress with protect her and her infant son Meridion from the mad dragon Anborn's rage. Having learned that the Merchant Emperor Talquist seeks her son for his own nefarious reasons, Rhapsody is forced to make a fatal choice. Ashe is left alone trying to organize their forces, while the dragon inside slowly drives him mad. Anborn begins to build a line of fortified defenses as Talquist's armies begin their forays.

This book serves as a bridging point between what has come before and as the opening act in the final trilogy in this series. As a result some significant side stories, particularly those involving Anborn Tristan Steward are definitively resolved. Having some periods of 'calm before the storm', allowed some reflection which lead to some real character development especially for Anborn. I also enjoyed how Haydon portrayed struggle that Rhapsody and Ashe had to face when their duties as parents and as monarchs clashed. 

My one disappointment is that there were some significant chracters, namely Grunthor and Achmed, who suffered from a lack of 'screen time.' I know that is bound to happen with any series with such a large cast of characters but these two are definitely a huge part of these books heart and soul.

Overall Haydon has made an eight year wait worthwhile by delivering a solid novel that sets the stage perfectly for the remaining two books in the series. 8.5/10.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Reviwe: Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik

After an accident aboard ship Captain Will Laurence awakens on the shores of Japan. Little does he know he has suffered retrograde amnesia and his memory of the last several years is gone. Laurence and his crew's vital mission to secure the aid of the Chinese in the war against Napoleon is under dire threat. Especially when there are elements within the Chinese government who will go to any lengths to stop it. Whats-more Napoleon has made a bold strike into Russia and if he is successful he might well secure all of Europe.

The previous two volumes of the Temeraire series contained similar problems, an over extensive travelog and missing any real sense of tension. I am happy to say that both these areas have been addressed. Even though Lawrence, Temeraire and their crew pass through several countries, much of the description of traveling is cut away. Even better is the author is still able to include elements to explain how dragons are incorporated into the various societies. With taking a more direct approach into the war itself the missing tension is also regained.

I actually enjoyed the amnesia subplot and thought it was a great way to measure how much Laurence has grown as a character while at the same time playing on his strength of character.

Overall I found this volume a welcome return to form and eagerly look forward to the finale. 8/10.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: A Man Betrayed by J.V. Jones

While working their way through Halcus Jack and Melliandra are separated when they are confronted by a patrol of enemy soldiers. Melliandra is captured by slavers but is determined to turn her circumstances into her favor. Jack meanwhile believes Melli is dead. He is taken in by a smuggler and his indebted 'family' who try and manipulate him into killing the captain of the guard 'responsible' for Melli's demise. After being driven to kill Bevlin by a compulsion Tawl flees to Bren where he attempts to lose himself in drink and fighting. However the young pickpocket Nabber is determined to aid his friend. Maybor and Baralis both reach Bren themselves. Baralis is attempting to ensure that the betrothal between Kylock and the Duke's daughter goes ahead while Maybor tries to subvert him. Kylock decides to arrange an accident for the ailing king, seizes power and invades Halcus, complicating everyone's plans.

I didn't enjoy this as much as the first volume. The novelty of many of the main characters being villains has worn a bit thin and I struggled to get past the overplayed self-absorbed and bumbling nature of most of the characters. I also found the writing itself slightly rougher than the first volume.

On the positive side the pacing is generally well controlled through most of the subplots and I did find the Duke of Bren himself an interesting addition to the cast.

Overall I found this volume harder going than the last. 6/10.       

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: Dangerous Women editied by by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Some Desperado by Joe Abercrombie: Shy made off with her gang's rather underwhelming amount of loot after a heist. However after her horse collapses outside a ghost town she has has to use all of her resourcefulness to try and survive her pursuers. Has it's moments and has more of a western feel to it than Red Country but doesn't offer anything more than a light entertaining read. 7/10.

My Heart Is Either Broken by Megan Abbott: A couple deal with the fallout of their daughter being abducted. The father begins to wonder if his wife may have more to do with their daughter's disappearance  than she is letting one. The story is told from the husband's perspective and I loved the way the very character of the wife shifted and changed through his eyes. Very well delivered twist as well. 8.5/10.

Nora's Song by Cecelia Holland: Tells the story of Nora, one of the young daughters of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine as she is caught up in her parents squabble. Nora's view point is well portrayed but the story itself doesn't seem to go very far and feels almost incomplete.  6.5/10.

The Hands Are Not There by Melinda Snodgrass: Science fiction story about a young man, who is down on his luck, being told a very strange story by an alien in a bar. Exceptional world building in a limited space with some well portrayed characters. 8.5/10.

Bombshells by Jim Butcher:  Molly is approached by Justine for help in a delicate matter. Thomas has been caught spying on the svartalves, who are in the middle of negotiations with the deadly Fomor. I've mostly enjoyed Butcher's forays into stories from the perspectives of other characters in the Dresden files and this one is no exception. Fast paced and action packed with nice little twist on the theme. 8.5/10.

Raisa Stepanova by Carrie Vaughn: Follows a female Russian fighter pilot during World War 2 who fears that her brother's disappearance from an infantry unit will doom her family. A steady piece but lacked any real spark. 6/10.

 Wrestling Jesus by Joe R. Lansdale: A young man is taken in by a geriatric wrestler who fights another geriatric wrestler every few years for a beautiful woman's favor. Packed with memorable and rather quirky characters and a lot of heart. 8.5/10.

Neighbors by Megan Lindholm: An elder woman is being pushed to selling her house and move into a retirement home by her busy children, while at the same time the disappearance of an eccentric neighbor may open the door to a world where the woman may still be useful. Emotionally powerful story with a wonderfully realized protagonist. Arguably the strongest story of the anthology 9/10.

I Know How To Pick 'Em by Lawrence Block: A man in a bar is approached by a desperate housewife, seemingly looking for a casual fling. Both parties may have darker intentions.  A chilling view point and another original twist on the theme. 8/10.

Shadows For Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson: Silence is the owner of an inn in a forest where dark spirits roam, easily enraged by the sight of blood or by a person running. In order to keep her family together she secretly kills outlaws with bounties on their head but her contact may want a bigger chunk of the prize. Exceptional world-building, a complex and engaging lead and a plot that moves right along. 8.5/10.

A Queen in Exile by Sharon Kay Penman: Constance is caught between the ambition of her husband Heinrich prince of Germany and her brothers bastard as they fight for Sicily. Has it's moments but overall felt a touch bland in characterization and plot. 6.25/10.

The Girl in the Mirror by  Lev Grossman: An overachieving girl in a magical school looks to prank a boy for a perceived wrong but gets more than she bargained for. I found the protagonist well drawn and loved the quirkiness of the story but it did lack a degree of depth. 7/10.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly by Nancy Kress. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the majority of women are no longer fertile and bands of survivors compete for survival by hunting and gathering. Nurse realizes the future of her own tribe is in jeopardy when some of them take an interest in something beautiful lost from the old world. Superb world-building and a very well realized protagonist. 8.75/10.

City Lazarus by Diana Gabaldon: Set in a New Orleans where the Mississippi river has now run dry. A crooked cop becomes infatuated with a beguiling stripper and begins to question his values. Strong cast of characters but I saw the twist coming a mile away. This probably wouldn't have been as obvious if it wasn't in an anthology about dangerous women. Still a very well written piece 8.25/10.

Virgins by Diana Gabaldon:  Two Scottish warriors find themselves escorting a wealthy Jewish man's daughter to the man she is to be wed to. Decent cast of characters but felt too much like it had been plucked from a larger piece. 7/10.

Hell Hath No Fury by Sherrilyn Kenyon: A spiritually sensitive young woman and her friends visit a ghost town cursed by a spurned woman. Clever take on the theme and moves right along. 7/10.

Pronouncing Doom by S.M. Stirling:  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the the local people have turned to a form of Neo-Druidism. Juniper, the local head woman, has to preside over the trial of an accused rapist. Another piece with strong world-building and protagonist. 8/10.

Name the Beast by Sam Sykes:  A schict woman is forced teach her estranged daughter how to be one of them while hunting a family of humans. Lacked any real spark. 6/10.

Caretakers by Pat Cadigan: A middle aged woman and her younger sister begin to suspect all might not be well at their mother's retirement home. Well-drawn characters and I really enjoyed the sometimes dysfunctional relationship of the sisters. 8.25/10.

Lies My Mother Told Me by Caroline Spector: Set in the Wild card universe. The amazing bubbles and Voodoo Mama find themselves the target of a mysterious foe with the ability to steal their powers and is intent on discrediting them. Stands really well on it's own as I had no trouble following and I've never read anything in the Wild Card universe before. Well realized cast of characters and surprisingly packs a strong emotional punch. 8.5/10.

The Princess and the Queen by George R.R. Martin: Outlines the events of a fight for the iron throne by two branches of House Targaryen. And when I say 'outlines, that's exactly what I mean. Major issues of 'telling' rather than 'showing'. While the events are interesting enough I really think this was a phoned in effort from Martin. 6.25/10.

Overall a very strong collection of stories which utilized the theme very well. Over half of them are real gems.  8.25/10