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Monday, October 20, 2014

GUEST POST: "Five Things I've Learned About War" by Erin Lindsey

They say you should write what you know. That’s always struck me as an awkward bit of advice for authors of speculative fiction. If we all followed it, SF/F would be a hell of a lot less interesting. Galactic cruisers would give way to minivans. Werewolves would be swapped out for Pomeranians. Shape shifting would consist of wriggling into last year’s skinny jeans. 

That being said, I’m lucky enough to have the kind of day job that I can draw on in my writing. My work has sent me to some pretty interesting places over the years, many of them affected by violent conflict. Often, it’s been my job to analyse that conflict – its history and causes, players and agendas. Doing so has taught me a lot about war, and politics in general. 

It isn’t that I’ve had any epiphanies, exactly. Most of the things I’ve come away with are instinctive on at least some level. But it’s safe to say that I’ve reflected on them, metabolised them, in ways I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. No surprise, then, that all of them feature to a greater or lesser extent in THE BLOODBOUND series

Here, in no particular order, are five things I’ve learned about war that have enriched my writing: 

 1) There is always someone who profits  Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But you’d be amazed how many well-meaning peacemaking efforts ignore this central fact. Wars generate their own economies. They shift the balance of power, presenting new opportunities to those clever and ruthless enough to capitalise on them. Some will seek to align themselves with a rising power. Others will find more advantage in keeping the war going for as long as possible. Oftentimes it’s these people, rather than the belligerents themselves, who define the course of the conflict, and pose the greatest threat to peace. 

 2) Knowing your enemy is more complicated than it seems –  There’s a tendency in fiction (as well as in modern journalism) to portray war as a clash between two sides with clear objectives. That’s rarely, if ever, the case. Wars are not fought between homogeneous actors with straightforward, static agendas. They’re fought between blocs, shifting confederations of stakeholders with differing, sometimes competing, interests, and those interests evolve over time. And I’m not just talking about alliances here – I mean within states as well, and within governments, cabinets, inner circles – to an almost infinitely reducible level, like a Russian nesting doll. That makes it difficult to interpret your enemy’s behaviour. What appears on the surface to be baffling inconsistencies may be the waxing and waning of influence between factions. The person you believe to be your arch-nemesis might actually be powerless, little more than a figurehead. By the same token, your allies – even your own closest confederates – might not be as firmly in your corner as you think. 

 3) The good guys never win  Where there is war, there will be war crimes. I can’t think of a single conflict that wasn’t full of them. And not just by the “bad guys”. Some of my greatest historical heroes are, by any modern definition, war criminals. I’ve struggled with that, but I’ve come to accept it, however uncomfortably. That’s because when it comes to the difficult questions, there are no good choices. Show me a victor, and I will show you someone who has waded hip deep into a moral quagmire. (Show me a political settlement, and I’ll ask you to get back to me in twenty years. Cynical, I know.)

 4) History matters forever –  A fleeting glance at the Middle East, the Balkans – hell, anywhere – is all it takes to recognise the pivotal, and often poisonous, role history can play in conflict. But it doesn’t always manifest itself in obvious ways. It’s not only about the major traumas – the massacres, the stolen land, the oppression. Historical narratives fundamentally orient our worldview. Should you strike first, or lie in wait for your enemy? Is compromise possible? When things are darkest, can you count on your neighbours, or are you in this alone? Are your leaders heroes, or parasites? Can peace and justice coexist? For those in the business of brokering peace, these attitudes, these beliefs that we carry in the very marrow of our bones, are often harder to deal with than any border demarcation. 

 5) Behind every epic struggle is an infinite number of individual dramas – This is perhaps the most obvious, and most consistently forgotten, aspect of conflict. It’s so easy – even necessary sometimes – to dehumanize, to jumble people together into numbers, into territory gained and lost. To classify and label: “refugees”, “separatists”, “victims”. But when you’re in the middle of it, with all these momentous events going on around you, they often don’t seem that momentous. History doesn’t always feel like history when it’s unfolding right in front of you. Instead, what inspires you, what breaks your heart, what overwhelms you, are the individual stories. So recognisable, so relatable, and yet so fundamentally beyond your ken, because they’re unfolding in the midst of a heaving shitstorm you can barely comprehend, let alone cope with. This is where you find your real heroes, and sometimes your real villains as well. Not symbols or labels, but actual human beings with fears and desires very much like your own. 

I could go on, but these are the five that have most directly affected my writing so far. I didn’t deliberately set out to reflect them in THE BLOODBOUND, but they somehow ended up there anyway. Next time around, I may well make it a more conscious effort, because I think keeping these things in mind while outlining – developing the plot, fleshing out the motivations of characters – will make for a textured, realistic portrayal of conflict. 

In the meantime, you can try to spot them in THE BLOODBOUND. Gold stars up for grabs!

Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Erin Lindsey is on a quest to write the perfect summer vacation novel, with just the right blend of action, heartbreak, and triumph. THE BLOODBOUND is her first effort. She lives and works in Bujumbura, Burundi, with her husband and a pair of half-domesticated cats. She also writes fantasy mysteries as E.L. Tettensor.

NOTE: Castle siege art courtesy of Grandlore Wiki. Author pic courtesy of the author herself.
Thursday, October 16, 2014

GUEST POST: Magic That Feels Like Magic by Jamie Schultz

One evening I was talking with a friend of mine who also happens to be a writing buddy, a man whose every manuscript I read, and who has likewise read virtually every terrible thing I’ve ever written, and we started comparing notes on our respective talents as writers (such as they are). He’s got an amazing capability to bring setting to life, for example, and he makes it look effortless in a way I am frankly envious of. As for me, he said that I have a knack for writing what he called “magic that feels like magic.”

I took that as a pretty high compliment, since that’s something I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about. There are a million ways magic can be treated in fantastic fiction, and I find some of those to be much more evocative than others. So I’m gonna ramble about that for a bit.

One way I tend to approach magic in fantasy is by essentially inverting Clarke’s famous dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—and then getting as far away from the result as practicable. That is to say, magic that conforms to a tidy set of rules and explicit formulae is essentially indistinguishable from technology, and that doesn’t feel like magic to me. Don’t get me wrong—that approach is just the thing for certain types of stories, and it can work amazingly well. Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence books are an incredible example of magic that is basically structured as a rigidly-ordered legal system, resulting in it providing the technological foundation for entire societies, and it works brilliantly, both on its own and as fertile ground for satire. Less effective authors operating within rigid rules systems tend to create things that feel exactly like that—rigid rules systems—generally, I believe, to the detriment of their settings.

At the other extreme is what I’ll call the “pull it out of your ass” magic system. That is, magic that does whatever the plot needs it to do at any given moment. Exhausted characters suddenly find inside them the strength to perform one last feat of wizardry, or the talisman they were given in Scene 24 suddenly comes to life and saves their bacon or points them toward whatever it is they need next. In effect, magic spends most of the story acting as a gee-whiz form of armament for the magic-using characters, and then occasionally becomes the unsubtle hand of the author, writing his or her way out of a pickle. (Here is a classic—if brutally snarky—discussion of Plot Tokens that I can’t improve upon in any way, so for more on the same concept, click away.)

Good magic systems have a framework, a set of limitations that is fairly clear to the reader, such that magic doesn’t run the risk of blowing the internal logic of the story to Hell. That is, magic is part of the internal logic, not an excuse to kick that logic in the gutter. Within those limitations, I feel that magic should have an element of unpredictability. It’s not a straight transfer function, wherein the characters put [x] into the input and get [y] out the other side, reliably and as directed. I like my magic a little squirrely, a little slippery. Willful, perhaps, and certainly with an element of randomness.

And, of course, it has a price. “Making a character very tired for a bit” is a pretty common one, but in my mind it hardly counts. That effect is easily brushed off and forgotten. A much better example of the price of at least one kind of literary magic is in The Lord of the Rings, where the One Ring’s awesome powers of corruption were well-known, to the point where neither Gandalf nor Galadriel wanted to touch the thing. A couple of great examples of magic systems that incorporate all these elements (they have a framework but perhaps not rigid rules, and they come with a price) and really feel like magic to me leap immediately to mind.

K.J. Parker, in the Fencer Trilogy, posits magic as a set of counterbalancing forces. A wise practitioner can use it to get what she wants, but the rebound—the counterbalance for any spell cast—is usually dangerous and wholly unpredictable. In the first book of the trilogy, a powerful wizard casts a spell to hurt somebody and spends the whole rest of the book watching the echoes from that act, in terrible fear of the day the backlash catches up to him. The magic in Charles Stross’s Laundry books has a much different flavor, but some of the same elements. There’s a nice framework, but Stross really goes the extra mile on the price of magic. Magic is computation, but the books are explicit that:
 1.) doing these types of computations in your head eventually results in Krantzberg syndrome, where tiny Lovecraftian horrors from beyond spacetime eat tiny Lovecraftian holes in your brain, and
 2.) if enough magical computations are performed in aggregate, across the world, that will attract the attention of colours out of space (or the like), resulting in the end of the world. Even though the system is hung on technological-seeming coat rack, it has a very distinct, magical feel to it—a neat trick, if you can do it.

My own novel, Premonitions, is predicated on a particularly nasty form of magic. Any given magical act is essentially a deal with a demon, which may have a mind of its own and, perhaps, the latitude to exercise it. Worse, do enough magic for long enough, and eventually you’ll lay out the welcome mat for the demons to come in and run the place (the place in this case being your mind). I like to think that the magic in the book has a distinctive feel that reinforces the on-the-edge feel of the book’s criminal underworld.

So, what about you? What makes magic in a book feel like magic?

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jamie Schultz has worked as a rocket test engineer, an environmental consultant, a technical writer, and a construction worker, among other things. He lives in Dallas, Texas. His first novel, Premonitions, received a starred review from Library Journal, who called it “a sterling urban fantasy debut with a great cast of characters.”
Monday, October 13, 2014

The Broken Road (Frayed Empire #1) by Teresa Frohock (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order The Broken Road HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Miserere
Read The Character Of Environment by Teresa Frohock (guest post)
Read an excerpt of Love Crystal and Stone by Teresa Frohock

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Teresa Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. T is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and has a short story, “Naked the Night Sings,” in the urban fantasy anthology Manifesto: UF. Another story, "Love, Crystal and Stone" appears in The Neverland's Library Fantasy Anthology. Her newest work is the novella, The Broken Road. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The world of Lehbet is under siege. The threads that divide Lehbet from the mirror world of Heled are fraying, opening the way for an invasion by an alien enemy that feeds on human flesh.

Travys, the youngest of the queen’s twin sons, was born mute. He is a prince of the Chanteuse, nobles who channel their magic through their voices. Their purpose is to monitor the threads and close the paths between the worlds, but the Chanteuse have given themselves over to decadence. They disregard their responsibilities to the people they protect—all but Travys, who fears he’ll fail to wake the Chanteuse to Heled’s threat in time to prevent the destruction of Lehbet.

Within the palace, intrigue creates illusions of love where there is none, and when Travys’ own brother turns against him, he is forced to flee all that he has known and enter the mirror world of Heled where the enemy has already won. In Heled, he must find his true voice and close the threads, or lose everyone that he loves.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Teresa Frohock is a master of dark stories and creating worlds wherein the horrors aren’t quite easily visible but on a closer look we can see the decay within. The Broken Road is the first book of the Frayed Empire series wherein the story opens up in the world of Lehbet. We are introduced to Prince Travys du Valois, the mute younger son of Queen Heloise, the ruler of the land of Lehbet. Travys is conflicted about the current state of affairs in their lands. The highborn called Chanteuse have the power to keep the lowborn safe but lately haven’t been doing that all too properly.

This leads to class resentment and trouble that can’t be exactly classified. Travys alongwith his friend Marc du Namur tries to find out more but to no avail as his elder twin Josue doesn’t want anything to do with ruling. Travys is stunned when he hears plans of his betrothal; even more troublesome considering that he is gay. The actual story opens when Travys learns why it is all happening. He’s betrayed on almost all fronts and then has to learn why and what is happening.

Unlike her previous works, there’s a strong mystery laced to the plot. The reader along with Travys is equally in the dark as to what is happening in the world of Lehbet. The author lays out certain clues about the nature of the world and then does her best to surprise the reader with the eventual reveals. I loved the pace of the story and all the twists that are ensconced within the story. Basically Teresa excels with the characterization as she very lucidly shows the class segregation set in the world of Lehbet.

This story is very reminiscent of the class problems before the French revolution and the author doesn’t quite go that way but there are strong rumblings about the troubles ahead. There’s also the genre underpinning to the story as the author mixes several genres that make it a bit difficult to pin down. I’m not mentioning what exactly but by the end I wasn’t sure what to call is besides being a great, dark story.

There’s also a cameo appearance by Paul Weimer that was fun to read about. I enjoyed the horror turn to the story which came as a big surprise and the way the story ends, you’ll want to find out what will happen next in Lehbet.

CONCLUSION: The Broken Road is a novella that showcases how dark fantasy & horror can make an intense combination. Teresa Frohock's exquisite prose & fantastical world-building also make this novella a top-notch read! Don't miss this exciting story about love, betrayal, & the need to save the world.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014

GUEST POST: The Character Of Environment by Teresa Frohock

A few years back, just prior to a World Fantasy Con, a question was posited as to whether urban fantasy had become the new gothic horror due to the cityscapes taking the place of haunted houses and castles. It was an interesting idea, but one that I ultimately rejected. Urban fantasy has a texture that isn’t quite as dark as gothic horror; although, I will concede there are many elements that overlap (sorry, no Venn diagram is forthcoming from me).

However, the idea of a physical place, such as a house, a rural landscape, or a city, attaining the same characteristics as a person seems to be common to both urban fantasy and gothic horror. I recently read an NPR review for Lauren Beukes new novel, Broken Monsters, where Michael Schaub noted that Beukes renders Detroit as “… a major, tragic character in the novel.” Sarah Waters gives us a house in The Little Stranger that becomes haunted with a man’s desires. The landscape within Stephen King’s Dark Tower series follows Roland like a member of his ka-tet. The powerful portrayal of the post-apocalyptic environment in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz remains with me decades after I read the story in high school. Carlos Ruiz Zafón turns the city of Barcelona into a character haunted by the recent Spanish Civil War and the turn of fortunes therein.

Especially within the horror genre, the landscape is often used as metonymy for the state of the characters and their spiritual growth, or, in some cases, the lack thereof. Zafón is the master of utilizing metonymy to reflect the atmosphere of his characters and their emotional states. He shows us Barcelona through the eyes of his protagonists, and the city is, in turn, vibrant, rainy, foggy, bright, or dismal, all based on the character’s mood and what is happening in the story.

With these techniques in mind, I deliberately set out with The Broken Road to achieve a story that was gothic in tone, which meant that the landscape in The Broken Road needed to be as memorable as the characters. I wanted to project a world where everything seemed all right on the surface, but deeper scrutiny revealed decay. I did this through the description of Travys and his surroundings. For example, in describing the dining room of the palace, I wanted to overlap the former extravagance with the current corrosion of Travys’ environment:

 "At first glance, the room seemed opulent, but a closer inspection revealed that the velvet cushions of the gilded chairs sported bald spots. Overhead, frescoes darkened by candle smoke and winter fires were mere blobs of color on the ceiling. The people and places in the paintings were so lost in time that no one could recall the stories behind the art. Ornamental plaster flaked and left sharp edges along the walls."

 "All of the doors and windows were thrown open to allow cooler air to circulate through the palace. A servant stood primly in one corner, but even he looked faded and worn in the late afternoon light."

I wrote it this way to show that Travys’ environment was in the process of decaying like the land and the monarchy which he represents. There is a twilight aspect to the first part of the novella. All of the major action happens just before sundown. Yet the story ends with the dawn breaking over the sea. This was intentional and is merely another aspect of the gothic story where the protagonist must move through the metaphorical night in order to conquer the evil that surrounds her or him in order to reach the dawn.

Travys’ plunge into the sea is another place where I wanted to evoke a certain mood. The events are overwhelming to Travys during this point of the story. He has been betrayed. The water is closing over his head and he cannot stop his plunge. I used the vastness of the sea to reinforce his helplessness. So while the setting is one memorable aspect of what makes a story gothic, it is merely one part of a greater whole. Gothic horror also contains elements of mystery and romance, supernatural creatures, madness, secrets, and embodies the best aspects of both horror and romance. For example, in most gothic stories, it is the woman who is threatened. In The Broken Road, I flipped that trope on its head and placed Travys and his lover, Gabriel, in constant danger.

Underpinning it all is the environment. Whether it is a castle, a city, a country, or the secret pathways beneath a city, the environment in gothic horror is a large part of the story. Utilized effectively, the landscape can be seen as a character that motivates the protagonist toward his or her destiny. While all of these properties can also be found in urban fantasy, I think that gothic horror tends to be darker in tone. Of course, this is definitely a case where one’s mileage will vary dramatically, because what is terrifying to one individual is merely light fiction to another.

I want to offer you a work fiction without labels or definitions. The Broken Road contains elements of science fiction, gothic horror, and fantasy all rolled together for fast-paced story. Oh, and there are flamethrowers, which are metaphors for nothing. Flamethrowers are simply cool. As far as I am concerned, you may call The Broken Road urban fantasy, or science fiction, or gothic horror. All that matters to me is that you enjoy the characters and the story.

Official Author Website
Order The Broken Road HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Miserere
Read an excerpt of Love Crystal and Stone by Teresa Frohock

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Teresa Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. T is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and has a short story, “Naked the Night Sings,” in the urban fantasy anthology Manifesto: UF. Another story, "Love, Crystal and Stone" appears in The Neverland's Library Fantasy Anthology. Her newest work is the novella, The Broken Road. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Jennifer Neri. Twilight world art courtesy of Apocalypse World: Dark Age.
Sunday, October 5, 2014

World of Weir Blog Tour with Cinda Williams Chima - Who Are the Enchanters?

Visit Cinda Williams Chima’s Official Site

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Fantasy Book Critic is proud to be a part of 'World of Weir' Blog Tour. Each tour stop, we explore some of the finer points of her hit series, all in preparation for the release of the final book in the series 'The Sorcerer Heir' (scheduled for release October 21, 2014). 

Week 4 is about exploring The Enchanters. Not sure who they are? Let's explore that!

Who are the Enchanters?
Enchanters use mind magic to seduce and manipulate others.

While Enchanters are less powerful than Wizards, they are the most proficient with mind magic and have the ability to charm, influence, and create emotions, particularly passion, attraction, and love. Wizards often have difficulty identifying Enchanters even when Enchanters use their power, and thus Enchanters can deceive and influence Wizards if they can snare them before the Wizard puts up defenses to avoid manipulation. Enchanters can alter their appearance in order to be more appealing to others. Physical contact makes their powers stronger.  The most powerful Enchanters can even influence or persuade a Wizard who is aware of their powers. Many Enchanters submit to a Wizard sponsor who protects them from other Wizards, at a cost. According to the Rules, Enchanters were created for the enjoyment and pleasure of Wizards. Enchanters are often associated with the color purple.

Learn more about this wonderful series by stopping by other blogs on the 'World of Weir' Blog Tour.

Those with magical powers in The Heir Chronicles series by Cinda Williams Chima are known as the Weir. The World of Weir blog tour leads up to the release of the can’t-miss series finale, The Sorcerer Heir (in-stores October 21st) by celebrating the magical fantasy world and the five types of magical guilds. Follow along for playlists, nail art, and more inspired by the series, plus exclusive excerpts from the upcoming finale.

WEEK 1:  THE WARRIORS September 14 – September 20
WEEK 2: THE WIZARDS September 21 –  September 27
WEEK 3: THE SEERS September 28 – October 4
WEEK 4:  THE ENCHANTERS October 5 – October 11
WEEK 5:  THE SORCERERS October 12 – October 18

The can’t-miss finale to the beloved and bestselling Heir Chronicles series.

The delicate peace between Wizards and the underguilds (Warriors, Seers, Enchanters, and Sorcerers) still holds by the thinnest of threads, but powerful forces inside and outside the guilds threaten to sever it completely. Old friends and foes return as new threats arise in this stunning and revelatory conclusion to the beloved and bestselling Heir Chronicles series.

The Sorcerer’s Heir is a self-contained story, accessible to readers just discovering the Heir series, but loyal fans will be rewarded by visits from characters they love (and love to hate) from the earlier installments. Readers will be glued to their seats through riveting fight scenes, deadly political machinations, burgeoning romance, and the unfolding intrigues of a contemporary magical world.

The Heir Chronicles series will keep readers glued to their seats through riveting fight scenes, deadly political machinations, burgeoning romance, and the unfolding intrigues of a contemporary magical world.

The Sorcerer’s Heir is a self-contained story accessible to readers just discovering the Heir series, but loyal fans will be rewarded by visits from beloved (and lovingly reviled) characters.

Series order:
The Warrior Heir
The Wizard Heir
The Dragon Heir
The Enchanter Heir
The Sorcerer Heir

GIVEAWAY: All 5 Books in the Heir Chronicles by Cinda Williams Chima

Fantasy Book Critic is excited to offer a giveaway of Cinda Williams Chima's complete series of books 'The Heir Chronicles'. All 5 books in the series will be offered. Giveaway is courtesy of Disney-Hyperion.

Giveaway includes the following books:
The Warrior Heir
The Wizard Heir
The Dragon Heir
The Enchanter Heir
The Sorcerer Heir

Rules to Enter:

  1. 1.      Contest is open to US residents only.
  2. To enter send an email to with a subject line of 'HEIR SERIES'. Please include your full name and mailing address in the email.
  3. Contest will end October 12, 2014 at 12:30 p.m. EST.
Saturday, October 4, 2014

"The Abyss Beyond Dreams" by Peter Hamilton (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"The year is 3326. Nigel Sheldon, one of the founders of the Commonwealth, receives a visit from the Raiel—self-appointed guardians of the Void, the enigmatic construct at the core of the galaxy that threatens the existence of all that lives. The Raiel convince Nigel to participate in a desperate scheme to infiltrate the Void.

Once inside, Nigel discovers that humans are not the only life-forms to have been sucked into the Void, where the laws of physics are subtly different and mental powers indistinguishable from magic are commonplace. The humans trapped there are afflicted by an alien species of biological mimics—the Fallers—that are intelligent but merciless killers.

Yet these same aliens may hold the key to destroying the threat of the Void forever—if Nigel can uncover their secrets. As the Fallers’ relentless attacks continue, and the fragile human society splinters into civil war, Nigel must uncover the secrets of the Fallers—before he is killed by the very people he has come to save."

The Abyss Beyond Dreams - well deserved title given the content - is the first of a duology ending with Night Without Stars which I expect to advance the Commonwealth universe beyond the Evolutionary Void timeline, though for now we are still within it.

High class sf combined with the Void magic like properties, an entertaining appearance from Paula Myo who helps Nigel - presumed gone with a colony fleet ~3000 AD but still in the Commonwealth semi-incognito in 3326 as per the blurb - manage a perfect heist, outside ANA borders obviously given who Paula Myo is, and get ***** to enhance the odds of success in his Void expedition - again per the blurb which is quite accurate as far as it goes.

Meantime - whatever that means obviously as the Void has its own time - inside the Void, Bienvenido already is a human planet about 3000 years old, with population descending from the Brandt colony ships from about 500 years before in Commonwealth time as per above note about timelines, and the people there fight a continuous war against the local Fallers who are trapped also in the Void. We actually learn a lot about the Fallers  as the book goes on and they are clearly set to be a powerful antagonist in future Commonwealth books if the author wants to write more there.

A society with a mix of modern and magic - whatever tech that works plus the Void psychic capabilities - led by a corrupt aristocracy descended from the officers of the fleet of which The Captain, Philious, currently 77 as while their Advancer genes are slowly losing ground, people on Bienvenido still live longer than current humans, and his eldest son, The First Officer and sadistic villain Aothori, are at the top within a veneer of democracy in which the governing Citizen's Dawn party has no real political rivals.

Heavily militarized due to the Fallers - huge eggs fall all the time from the strange forest like artifact in orbit and absorb humans and other animals, mimicking them perfectly - Bienvenido is resisting the Fallers relatively successfully for now, though there are dark rumors about Faller nests infiltrating cities.

Escaping from a close encounter with an egg as a green recruit - though losing one hand in the process and seeing his best friend from childhood ingested and becoming a Faller - lieutenant Slvasta is fanatical about fighting the Fallers in his province; very successful and attracting a large following from the regular soldiers who know their odds of surviving are the best under his command, he becomes an embarrassment to his lazy superiors so he is promoted to captain and shipped as regimental liaison to the capital Varlan. 

Slvasta is still bugged by his last active mission where he was only partly successful as he eradicated the infestation but could not find the usual number of eggs and by an encounter with a strange trader and his entourage, trader who called himself by an unusual name - Nigel - and whom Slvasta proved that he was human by having him cut his finger as Faller blood is blue, but still suspected of having something to do with the missing eggs.

In the capital, Slvasta tries to change things and improve the odds of fighting the Fallers against bureaucratic obstacles, while being pulled into opposites by his friendship with a capable and less corrupt aristocratic officer and by his association with the humbler citizens too. Similarly he is pulled between a rich girl whom he would have a chance of marrying as she is only 5th daughter while Slavsta is something of a hero - marriage which would open him the path to ascension and eventually to lead a regiment or even more - and a humbler tax office girl whom he meets when he tries to find out more about "Nigel".

And so it goes, lots of things happen, the novel is structured beautifully as it starts with a horror like chapter - quite relevant later too - in which the Fallers appear, followed by Nigel and Paula in the Commonwealth, then followed by Slvasta's odyssey and then things are pulled together masterfully. There is everything one wants in sf - great characters, mind bending stuff, adventure, politics, romance, revolution....

Just to give one example of the elements that make the book excellent, example that is not that spoilery - the Void has many odd properties compared to the regular universe (as we learned in the Void trilogy), however it needs internal consistency, so when even stranger things happen, the Void manufactures evidence of past things that actually never happened that way at least, or as Nigel puts it:

"That’s how the Void outside the loop attempts to balance the books and make the present correct, to neutralize the paradox.” He grinned savagely. “It’s like the old Creationists claiming God laid down the dinosaur fossils a few thousand years ago."
(only here it actually happened/s...)

The ending is awesome and quite surprising in many ways and while obviously requiring the announced sequel, it has enough closure to be fully satisfying - given the end of The Evolutionary Void we know what happens with the Void, and I was still quite surprised.

Overall just superb stuff, Peter Hamilton in great form and a very balanced book between the sfnal human universe and the magic like Void with mostly new elements so no feeling of a retread of the Void trilogy or the original Commonwealth duology.

Top sf of the year by far.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Agency Rules by Khalid Muhammad (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Khalid Muhammad was born in the Swat valley in the Northwestern part of Pakistan but was brought up in the United States of America. Inspired by stories about Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, James Bond, etc. Khalid choose to write about the stories in his head and that lead to the inception of his debut book Agency Rules. He currently lives in Pakistan. 

OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: Celebrated as a ragtag force that defeated and broke the Soviet Union, no one predicted the Mujahideen would bring with them a plague that would spread like wildfire through Pakistan in the years to follow. When the battle-worn fighters returned with no enemy or war to fight, they turned their sights on the country that had been their creator and benefactor.

From the same battlegrounds that birthed the Mujahideen, a young Kamal Khan emerges as a different breed of warrior. Discarding his wealthy family comforts, Kamal becomes a precision sniper, an invincible commando and a clandestine operative bringing intimidation, dominance and death with him to the battlefield. Ending the plague is his prime directive.

Shrouded in political expediency, hampered by internal power struggles, international espionage and doublespeak that makes Washington’s spin doctors proud, Kamal’s mission is a nightmare of rampant militant fundamentalism that threatens to choke and take Pakistan hostage. For him, the fight is not just for freedom, but the survival of a nation. 

FORMAT/INFO: Agency Rules is 332 pages long divided over eighteen numbered chapters. Narration is in the third-person via Kamal Khan and a bunch of other characters. Agency Rules is the first book of the untitled series.

January 13, 2014 marks the paperback and e-book publication of Agency Rules and it was self-published by the author.

ANALYSIS: Agency Rules by Khalid Muhammad is a very different thriller, because primarily it focuses on Pakistan. A country, whose internal turbulence is like none other and one whose problems matter because it has a nuclear arsenal. Secondary point of differentiation is that the main protagonist is an ISI agent who is as true as they come.

The story focuses on Kamal Khan, an ISI operative who is suddenly catapulted into a strange situation within the lawless tribal areas formerly known as the Northwest frontier province and now known as Federally administered tribal areas. We meet Kamal just as he’s graduating from his military academy and is selected by his peers to join the ISI. Faced with a different post, he soon discovers that there is a terrorist group operating within their circles and infiltrates them to meet their true leaders. Soon he will be faced with answers that will terrify him but the job needs to be done.

This book intrigued me as it focused on a country that is neighbors with my birth country and shares a very complicated history. The ISI is an organization that basically rivals the CIA and is probably the only other organization that shares such a sordid reputation. The author though takes his time to establish a lot of factoids about the organization’s creation and the people who were involved with it. This aspect of the story was intriguing and will help a lot of readers who basically don't know much about the organization to get familiar with their workings.

I enjoyed how the author built the organization as well as showcased brilliantly the fragile state of Pakistan’s democracy. The author also reveals how terrible twisted the political and military machinery works hand in hand and shines a dark light on the agents that make up the ISI. The author reminded me a lot of John Le Carre in this effort, as he doesn’t make spycraft sexy. Like Mr. Cornwell’s famous pseudonym, he basically shows the unglamorous and truthful side to things that make nations work. The author however does manage to make this story not too gloomy unlike most of Le Carre’s work.

The book though does suffer from some negatives, namely that the main character isn’t very likable as are the other characters we meet. Thrillers need memorable characters, excellent plot twists and snappy pace. This story delivers on the last part but isn’t quite memorable in the first two factors. The characters are grey or black (depending on your view) and with certain authors could still be very magnificent bastards. But in this book, the author fails to make us truly care for most of the lot besides invoking sympathy for their plight being stuck in rather unfortunate conditions.

CONCLUSION: Agency Rules is a dark thriller that focuses on a country that is much maligned and manages to invoke the reader’s interest. It however doesn’t go the complete route of great thrillers and manages to be a decent read instead of being a fabulous one.
Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Young Elites by Marie Lu (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Pre-order the book HERE
Read the first chapter HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Legend

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Marie Lu was born in China but grew up in Texas, she was born in the year which is also the title of George Orwell’s most famous book. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Political science. She has previously worked as a flash & concept art developer at Disney Interactive studios as well as the lead artist designing MMO games for Hollywood Interactive Group, Inc. She also created Fuzz academy, a children's brand featuring a host of school-attending fuzzy animals that emphasize education and environmentalism. Marie Lu has also held the art director position at Online Alchemy, a video game company.

OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all. 

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her. 

FORMAT/INFO: The Young Elites is 368 pages long divided over thirty-two non-numbered, POV-titled chapters and an epilogue. Narration is in the first-person for Adelina Amouteru and in the third-person via Teren Santoro, Enzo Valenciano, and Raffaele Laurent Bessette. The Young Elites is the first book in the Young Elites series.

October 7, 2014 marks the North American Hardcover and e-book publication of The Young Elites via G.P. Putnam & sons.

ANALYSIS: This is Marie Lu’s sophomore effort after completing her debut dystopian trilogy. However with this series, she’s venturing into secondary world fantasy for the first time. The blurb for this book made me very intrigued and even though my experience with Legend wasn’t an entirely ecstatic one. I still liked her writing style and so with that I dove into this dark story.

In the lands of Kennetra, a little more than twelve years ago, a sickness akin to the plague swept through the lands and claimed many lives. However some of the afflicted survived the sickness but were physically and magically altered. They were thought to be cursed and called “Malfetto”. The main protagonist Adelina Amouteru is a sixteen year old who bears some physical scars due to the blood fever. She lost her left eye and has other scars, which mixed with her natural beauty leave her family in a very precarious position. People are ready to marry her sister Violetta but with Adelina, they only want her as a mistress. Complicating her life is her cruel father who might take up someone if they give him enough money for his failing business? After finding out that her father is seriously considering an offer, she decides to save herself by running away.

The tale however begins with Adelina in prison awaiting execution for being a Malfetto and other stuff. She recounts all that has happened which lead to her being in a damp, dank cell. Things however don’t quite go with the executioner’s plan as Adelina is introduced to the other POV characters Teren, Enzo and Raffaele. Enzo and Raffaele are part of the Dagger group who are young elites who are using their skills against the Inquisitors & the royalty who have decreed all malfettos as abominations. Teren is the head inquisitor tasked by the queen to seek out and destroy the daggers. That’s where the plot really kicks in as there are plot twists and betrayals that will tease the reader all the way till the stunning epilogue. 

Firstly for all new readers, I must warn that this is a dark story aimed at the young adult crowd and so it must be judged as a YA book. The story opens with quite a twist and then continues on with its express pace on to its twisted end. The best parts of this story are the characters, beginning with Adelina, Enzo, Rafaella and the rest. Even though Adelina is a person who has been getting the short end of the stick from almost everyone she has met or meets. She is slowly and surely melded in to a person who learns only to hate but kudos to the author she still manages to make her very sympathetic. I enjoyed this aspect of the story as this is the author’s attempt at writing a Darth Vader origin story and she manages to pull it off well.

Going to the rest of the cast, while the focus isn’t quite as strong on them. The author manages to give Enzo, Teren and Rafaelle enough distinct personalities so that don’t seem caricaturish (atleast not entirely). There are some moments of caricaturish behavior but they don’t detract a whole lot. The plot twists also help in making the story an enjoyable one but considering that this a YA story, some of them are predictable. The world-building details a world similar to Italy of the middle ages, however it isn’t quite deep enough. The author passes on details and factoids about the world within but from a world-building junkie POV, this isn’t a grade A effort.

Ultimately as far as YA stories go, this is a fun take on the “dark lord in the making” storyline. Kudos to the author for taking a chance on a different genre and not continuing in the dystopian vein which she started with. This sophomore series effort is a dark, twisted story that showcases the author’s skills and is definitely an upswing from her debut effort. 

CONCLUSION: The Young Elites is a dark tale of a female Darth Vader in the making. Marie Lu weaves a tight plot with some twists that will have the readers turning pages while sympathizing for Adelina inspite of the role she will grow into. An entertaining read that will wow the YA crowd and gain the author newer fans. 


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