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Monday, September 30, 2013

“The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “The Emperor’s SoulHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read FBC’s Review of “The Rithmatist
Read FBC’s Review of “Steelheart

Brandon Sanderson's novella The Emperor's Soul, published late 2012 by Tachyon, won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novella, so I wanted to take a minute to talk about why I think this one is so cool.

For those who have read Sanderson's other works, here's an interesting tidbit: this novella is set in the same world as the author’s debut novel Elantris, but on a different continent. If you haven't read Elantris, that won't affect your enjoyment at all; if you have, watch out for the allusions.

Historically we've seen a lot of medieval European-inspired fantasy settings in the genre, but not so many Asian-inspired settings, which is the first thing that immediately catches the eye on this one.

I think this novella is a great example of how to use something from the real world to inspire your fantasy story. In this case, it's the stamps on Chinese pottery and art. Sanderson talks more about that aspect, and the process of writing this novella, in this twenty minute podcast HERE. (That podcast is absolutely full of SPOILERS, though, so if that bothers you, read the novella first.)

As with all Sanderson stories, there are multiple magic systems at work, and we're given enough to know that the world is big, complicated, and fleshed out without overwhelming details of every difference.

The protagonist, Shai, was awesome. Clever, competent, active, thoughtful, all the things I want in a protagonist. I appreciated that this is a story with a female protagonist and yet has absolutely no romance. Characters Shai and Gaotona were both a joy to read: I loved their interactions and how consistent each character was. They're trying hard to understand each other given how each categorizes and deals with the world, and the ending felt perfect.

I agree with the comment on the aforementioned podcast that we could have done without the extra POVs; I liked one for Gaotona at the beginning and end for symmetry and to contrast Shai's perspective, but the other came out of nowhere and threw me off.

Overall, The Emperor’s Soul is fast-paced, clever, and fun; definitely worth checking out if you can.
Saturday, September 28, 2013

“Saga” by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples' (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “Saga, Volume 1HERE
Order “Saga, Volume 2HERE
Read a Preview HERE

ABOUT SAGA:

Saga is an epic space opera/fantasy comic book series created by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples, published monthly by Image Comics. The series is heavily influenced by Star Wars, and based on ideas Vaughan conceived as both a child and as a parent. It depicts two lovers from long-warring extraterrestrial races, Alana and Marko, fleeing authorities from both sides of a galactic war as they struggle to care for their newborn daughter, Hazel, who occasionally narrates the series.

ANALYSIS: You may have heard of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga if you followed the Hugo Awards, as it took the prize for Best Graphic Story. Honestly, I don't follow many graphic novels, but for Volume 2 I marked the release on my calendar.

If you're not normally a graphic novel reader, Saga is for you.

If you are a regular graphic novel reader and are tired of the same old, Saga is also for you.

Really Saga is for everyone, unless you prefer your stories without things like profanity and sex, because those do happen in Saga. Right from the beginning, so you know what you're getting into (I mean, not really, but at least a sense of the tone) from the get-go.

Saga is some sort of cross between space opera and epic fantasy. The narrator is telling the story of her history, which is a framing voice that would normally annoy me, but the story is so good that I don't even care.

We have the multiple POVs characteristic of an epic, the sprawling scope and travel between worlds. We have magic powered by secrets, an organic spaceship that follows thoughts when it feels like it. We have Lying Cat, who is the best ever, and we have a royal family with TV boxes for heads. We have a trashy romance novel serving as catalyst and framing device for one of the most daring coups in the galaxy.

The story is fundamentally optimistic, but it does not shy away from dealing with the cost of war. We have characters with PTSD, characters we love who die and leave loved ones behind to try to cope, and a ghost babysitter who's missing her lower half because of this ongoing war.

Saga is at turns, and sometimes at once, beautiful and horrifying. This is not a coming of age narrative, nor a defeat all-the-bad-guys type of story. It's much more complicated than that, and even the “bad guys” have sympathetic and complex motivations.

This is one of the most innovative and poignant things out there right now. Check out Saga.

ABOUT BRIAN K. VAUGHAN:

Brian K. Vaughan is the Eisner Award-winning and New York Times-bestselling writer of Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways, and Pride of Baghdad. Vaughan lives in Los Angeles, where he worked as a writer, story editor and producer of the hit television series Lost during seasons three through five. He is currently the showrunner and executive producer of the CBS TV series Under The Dome.

ABOUT FIONA STAPLES:

A graduate of the Alberta College of Arts & Design, Fiona Staples is a critically-acclaimed artist of such comic books as Mystery Society and North 40 for which she was nominated for an Eisner Award. In 2013, Fiona received Harvey Awards for Best Artist and Best Colourist for the Eisner, Harvey & Hugo Award-winning comic book series Saga.
Friday, September 27, 2013

Interview with Django Wexler (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Thousand Names and The Penitent Damned
Read Django Wexler's guest post about the planning of a series
Read the prologue and chapter one HERE 


Django Wexler's flintlock fantasy debut The Thousand Names really made an impression on Liviu and me at Fantasy Book Critic. I was thoroughly amazed by the scope of the story and the way it was presented. A particular highlight were the POV characters especially Winter Ihernglass. Django was kind enough to accept my invite for this interview & so read ahead to find what makes Django tick. What's upcoming in the Shadow Campaign series as well as what he has previously written..

Q: Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, could you please introduce yourself, and tell us what inspired you to become a wordsmith? 

DW: Hi! I’m Django Wexler. I’ve been doing writing of one sort of another as long as I can remember, first for elaborate table-top RPG campaigns and eventually making the jump into fiction. If there was something specific that inspired me, it’s lost in the mists of time. Doing it professionally is a pretty recent thing, though -- I always thought I’d be a programmer with a writing hobby.

Q: Could you elaborate more on the journey you went through in finding a publisher, what you think of Ace-Roc? And what you think the publisher saw in your book? 

DW: Depending on how you count, The Thousand Names was either my ninth or tenth novel. After doing a couple of books with a small press (I’ll talk about those in a minute) I decided I wanted to write something new that I could use to try and get a literary agent. My first attempt at that book, Gaze Into Shadow, didn't quite cut it, so I left that universe to sit in a drawer for a while and took on The Thousand Names. It was around this time I moved from Pittsburgh to Seattle, too, so between changing cities and changing jobs it took me a long time to get things going again.

Once I had a draft, I went through what I was always taught was the standard process. (It turns out that probably more people deviate from this than follow it.) I made a list of agents who I thought might like my work, and sent query packages to each of them over the course of a couple of weeks. I think out of fifty queries, I got two positive responses, and one of those was on the second try -- Seth Fishman, who ultimately became my agent, passed the first time around because he didn't have room in his schedule. (I’m glad he got to take another look, because he’s awesome!)

After Seth took me on as a client, I did another draft of the book with his advice and wrote synopses for the rest of the series, and he took those out to the publishers. As to what Roc saw in the book, you’d have to ask them, although I know the length was a potential sticking point. My experience working with them has been wonderful, from start to finish -- my editor, Jess Wade, did a great job and worked hand-in-hand with my UK editor so I didn't end up with two competing sets of notes, and their publicity has been excellent.


Q: So when and how did the idea for the Shadow Campaign series first come about, how long have you been working on it, and how much has it evolved from its original conception? 

DW: The Shadow Campaigns has gone through quite a few iterations over the years. It was originally conceived as a kind of fantasy history of Napoleon Bonaparte, and bits and pieces of that conception have stuck around, but the overall series has changed a lot as ideas are wont to do. The first thing that’s recognizable as part of the idea is from 2006 or so, but I tend to grab bits and pieces of failed project to use in new ones, so it’s hard to put an exact time-frame on it.

I wrote a little bit about going back through my notes for the series here.

Q: I was very intrigued by the character of Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich. He seemed to be a curious mixture of Sherlock Holmes and A.X.L. Pendergast. Pray tell us how his existence came to be and what is his character arc? I’m also curious as to whether he will be getting his own POV in the future books? 

DW: Janus was originally the Napoleon character, the military genius whose presence would dominate the scene. Again, I've moved on a lot from there, and his character definitely has big doses of Sherlock Holmes and Grand Admiral Thrawn, along with many others. My original plan was for him to be the main character, seen through the POV of a loyal follower, somewhat like Holmes and Watson, but it didn't work out -- Marcus, and later Winter, acquired personalities of their own, and the story became as much about them as it was about Janus. (This is probably a good thing. Winter’s story in particular has become one of my favorite parts of the series.)

Janus probably will not get a POV. When you've got a character who is supposed to be a genius, it can be very difficult to dip into his head without ruining some of the magic. We’ll definitely find out a lot more about him, though!


Q: Tell us about “The Penitent Damned”? How long ago is it set in the series and will any of the characters featured in it be playing a major role in the sequels to come? 

DW: For those who haven’t heard of it, “The Penitent Damned” is a prequel short for The Thousand Names, available as a free ebook (Here) or for $0.99 on the Kindle store.

It’s set just before Janus departs for Khandar, which puts it roughly six weeks (sailing time from Vordan to Khandar) before the opening of The Thousand Names. The characters from the short will definitely be making appearances in the series -- we’ll see Andreas and Orlanko again in The Shadow Throne, in fact, when the action returns to Vordan City. (I actually wrote the first draft of The Shadow Throne before writing the short, so I had all the maps and references for Vordan City handy!)

Q: I noticed on Fantastic Fiction that you have two other books listed as your previous publications, Can you tell us about Memories Of Empire and Shinigami? What genres are they set in and how did those books come about to be? 

DW: I wrote Memories of Empire as my first attempt at getting a fantasy novel published, after a string of fan-fiction and other internet stuff. It takes place in a world where a Roman- or European-style civilization has been conquered by a Japanese-style one, and revolves around a mysterious, invincible swordsman named Corvus and a girl, Veil, who he rescues from slavery. I’d probably call it swords and sorcery, I guess?

It was printed by a small publisher, Medallion Press, and did well enough that they asked me for another one. What I came up with was Shinigami, a dark (at times, very dark) fantasy. It’s the story of two sisters from our modern world, Lina and Sylph, who die in a car accident and find themselves in a world called Omega, ruled by tyrannical Archmagi. Before long, Lina is proclaimed the prophesized Liberator who will free the people from oppression and leads the fight against them, while Sylph tries to figure out who engineered the whole setup. Both books are out of print now. I do have the rights back, though, so it’s quite possible we’ll see them again at some point.


Q: For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for the Shadow Campaign Series? 

DW: I write all kinds of stories (I have a middle-grade fantasy, The Forbidden Library, coming out in April) but The Shadow Campaigns specifically I would call military fantasy. I vary the elevator pitch depending on who I’m talking to -- I've used both “Sharpe with magic” and “Game of Thrones with guns”, though I always quail at comparing myself to awesome writers like Cornwall and Martin.

A slightly longer version of the latter goes like this: when I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I was really taken with what Martin did, bringing the “traditional” fantasy setting with knights and castles and so on back to its realistic medieval roots. That idea of blending a dose of historical realism with magic really appealed to me, and so I eventually decided to give a try. Instead of 13th century England, I used early 19th century France, loosely scaffolding the story around the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Q: Speaking of the series, how many volumes are projected, how far along are you in "The Shadow Throne", and is there anything you can tell us about it (additional POVs)? 

DW: The Shadow Throne is actually finished, and has been for some time. I wrote the first draft last summer, while I was waiting for edits to come back on The Forbidden Library. Right now I’m working on the first big edit pass, which is due to my editor in a couple of weeks. It’s been a bit of a struggle, but now it’s coming along nicely!

I’m really excited about it, I think there’s a lot of cool stuff in there I can’t wait to show everyone. There’s one additional POV character, Raesinia Orboan, Princess of Vordan and heir-apparent to the throne. She was part of my very first drafts of The Thousand Names (which included big parts of what is now The Shadow Throne) so in a way this is kind of a completion of that original story.

Aside from a few short “asides” (like Jaffa and Khtoba in The Thousand Names) she should actually be the last POV character added to the series. I planned The Shadow Campaigns to be five books, and thus far it seems to be sticking pretty close to the original outline, so I think that’s fairly solid.


Q: You also have a middle grade title coming out next year “The Forbidden Library”. Tell us about it and how do you plan to write in two different genres? 

DW: The Forbidden Library is the story of a girl named Alice and the evening in 1931 when she comes downstairs to find a fairy talking to her father in the kitchen. When her father disappears soon after under mysterious circumstances, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never heard of, who lives deep in the woods with an enormous library Alice isn't allowed to enter. When she does sneak in, trying to find out what really happened to her father, she discovers that fairies are the least of her problems.

Writing in two genres, or at least for two different audiences, has been surprisingly easy, which I think is mostly because I have really excellent editors. When I started The Forbidden Library I didn't really know it was a children’s book, and I mostly wrote it just the way I would normally write anything else. (Once I caught on, I decided to leave out any explicit gore, sex, or swearing, but the rest is the same.) Kathy, my editor, helped me go through it and make it a little more appropriate for the audience, but we honestly didn't change that much.

Q: For some authors it’s easier writing their second novel, while for others it’s more difficult. How are things going for you with “The Shadow Throne” and did you learn anything when writing “The Thousand Names” that helped prepare you for the new book? 

DW: It’s a little bit harder now that I’m going through The Shadow Throne to make sure it’s consistent, because I have to keep checking details against my notes or the text of The Thousand Names. In another way, it’s easier, because I have a much better grasp of Winter, Marcus, and Janus than I did when I started writing the first book.

Every book is a learning experience, but it helps that The Shadow Throne isn't really my second novel. (Depending on how you count, The Thousand Names was something like #9, and I wrote The Forbidden Library in between them.) I have learned a lot about the publishing process, and I think working with my other set of excellent editors, Jess and Michael, has done wonders. The one thing I've had to work on most of all is patience -- everything in publishing takes forever!




Q: Can you tell us more about the world (nations, lands, religions, etc) that “The Thousand Names” is set in and some of the series’ major characters? 

DW: I could fill a book with the backstory and world design of The Thousand Names, easily, but obviously I can’t put all that here. One major aspect we’ll see come to the fore in the next book is the division in the Vordanai religion, between the Sworn Church (whose members swear loyalty to the Church hierarchy in Elysium) and the Free Church, made up of hundreds of small, independent congregations. Vordan is officially a Free Church country, which puts it at odds with Borel and Murnsk, its neighbors to the north, where the Sworn Church is the state religion. To the east is the Six Cities League, led by Hamvelt, a rich, mountainous city-state.

Q: In epic fantasy, some authors like to put an emphasis on characters or worldbuilding; others on storytelling. Where do you fit in this picture and what do you feel are your strengths as a writer? What about weakness or areas that you’d like to get stronger in, especially in future books? 

DW: Characters are always foremost for me, because I think they’re really what sticks with the reader. I’m probably better at worldbuilding (it comes from years of GMing) but creating memorable characters is really the heart of fiction; the world is just there as scaffolding to hang them on. It’s something I’d like to be better at, although I suspect that will always be true no matter how many books I write.

Q: Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to? 

DW: I mentioned George R. R. Martin above, who more or less directly led to my current series. Another big influence was a series called The General by S. M. Stirling and David Drake, where they retell the campaigns of Belisarius in an SF setting. Getting a jacket quote from Stirling was a huge thrill. I’d also have to mention David Chandler, whose non-fiction is as exciting as any epic fantasy. His Campaigns of Napoleon is probably most directly responsible for The Thousand Names and its sequels.

Among current authors, there are way too good ones to list, so I’ll restrict myself to mentioning fellow Penguin debut M. L. Brennan, who was in writing class at Carnegie Mellon with me more than a decade ago. Check out Generation V, it’s a great, unique take on urban fantasy.

Q: In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers? 

DW: Only to thank them for staying with me through all of that! And if you’re going to be at New York Comic-Con, make sure to drop by and say hello!

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of M.L. Brennan. All other pictures courtesy of the author.
Thursday, September 26, 2013

Short Stories and Non Fiction: "Feast and Famine" by Adrian Tchaikovsky, "The Lowest Heaven" edited by Anne Perry and Jared Shurin and "Sibilant Fricative" by Adam Roberts (with comments by Liviu Suciu)


From Adrian Tchaikovsky, acclaimed author of The Shadows of the Apt series  - see our review of latest -9th - installment, War Master's Gate, with links to reviews of all previous 8 books as well as to our interview with him - and the wonderful small UK press NewCon comes "Feast and Famine" which contains a very diverse offering ranging from hard sf to ghost stories and ending with what else but a Shadows of the Apt story set in the Dragonfly Commonweal and which features recurring characters that appear also in the story The Chains of Helleron; through the kindness of the author, you can read both these stories on the author's site following the previous link.

Here is the blurb and the table of contents:

"In Feast and Famine Adrian Tchaikovsky delivers an ambitious and varied collections of stories. Ranging from the deep space hard SF of the title story (originally in Solaris Rising 2) to the high fantasy of “The Sun in the Morning” (a Shadows of the Apt tale originally featured in Deathray magazine), from the Peter S Beagle influenced “The Roar of the Crowd” to the supernatural Holmes-esque intrigue of “The Dissipation Club” the author delivers a dazzling array of quality short stories that traverse genre. Ten stories in all, five of which appear here for the very first time.
Contents:

1. More Than Meets the Eye - An Introduction
2. Feast & Famine
3. The Artificial Man
4. The Roar of the Crowd
5. Good Taste
6. The Dissipation Club
7. Rapture
8. Care
9. 2144 and All That
10. The God Shark
11. The Sun of the Morning
12. About the Author
13. Adrian Tchaikovsky and NewCon Press

 *******************************************************************


From editors Anne Perry, Jared Shurin and small UK press Jurassic London comes The Lowest Heaven with the blurb and contents below. Any anthology that has stories by Adam Roberts and Alastair Reynolds is a must buy for me, while here there are also stories by JC Grimwood, Mark Newton, Simon Morden, Lavie Tidhar, Kameron Hurley among other authors we enjoy and review at FBC.

"The Lowest Heaven is a new anthology of contemporary science fiction published in partnership with the Royal Observatory Greenwich to coincide with Visions of the Universe, a major exhibition of space imagery.

Each story in The Lowest Heaven is themed around a body in the Solar System, from the Sun to Halley's Comet. The stories are illustrated with photographs and artwork selected from the archives of the Royal Observatory, while the book's cover and overall design are the work of award-winning South African illustrator Joey Hi-Fi."

Includes:

Introduction by Dr. Marek Kukula (Royal Observatory Greenwich)
"Golden Apple" by Sophia McDougall (The Sun)
"A Map of Mercury" by Alastair Reynolds (Mercury)
"Ashen Light" by Archie Black (Venus)
"The Krakatoan" by Maria Dahvana Headley (Earth)
"An account of a voyage from World to World again, by way of the Moon, 1726" by Adam Roberts (The Moon)
"WWBD" by Simon Morden (Mars)
"Saga's Children" by E. J. Swift (Ceres)
"The Jupiter Files" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Jupiter)
"Magnus Lucretius" by Mark Charan Newton (Europa)
"Air, Water and the Grove" by Kaaron Warren (Saturn)
"Only Human" by Lavie Tidhar (Titan)
"Uranus" by Esther Saxey (Uranus)
"From This Day Forward" by David Bryher (Neptune)
"We'll Always Be Here" by S. L. Grey (Pluto & Charon)
"Enyo-Enyo" by Kameron Hurley (Eris)
"The Comet's Tale" by Matt Jones (Halley's Comet)
"The Grand Tour" by James Smythe (Voyager)

 *******************************************************************  


And finally, while not that much information yet, Sibilant Fricative, the highly anticipated non-fiction collection of Adam Roberts is moving along to be released soon by NewCon press. Agree or disagree, but there is no question that Adam Roberts' witty reviews (some would say, a bit too much so on occasion) and his genre essays are always a pleasure to read, so this is another must for me.

Here is what the author had to say when introducing the blog with the same name a few months ago, after he closed the much missed Punkadiddle last year:

"...Two: in the mid-term future, there's something else. The estimable Ian Whates, and more specifically his excellent NewCon Press, are going to publish a collection of my sf-related non-fiction. This is confected of various items, including a fair few of the less disposable Punkadiddle pieces, some of which (it turns out! who knew!) are quite lengthy; and the collection will be available soon.  It will be called Sibilant Fricative, see, and when it comes out I'll use this blog for minimum-efficiency promotion, see"

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Second Body"and 'Last Love in Constatinople" by Milorad Pavic (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

 

 


Second Body - or the Pious novel

"The author of this book is imaginary; the rest of the characters mostly existed. The Spring of the Virgin Mary mentioned in these pages can be found near the house of the Holy Virgin Mary in the town of Ephesus, now Turkey. The ring in the tale also exists. We saw it at a friend of ours’. It changes color depending on the state of its bearer’s body. The two authors talked of in this novel also lived – Gavril Stefanović Venclović (cca 1680-1749?) and Zaharija Orfelin (1726-1784). One lived in Sent Andrea, in Hungary, and the other for a while in Venice. 

Their works mentioned and quoted here can be read to this very day. In 1772 Venetian printer and publisher Teodosije published Orfelin’s voluminous biography of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, one of the most finely illustrated books of the time, today read as an exciting novel. Alexander Pushkin had it in his library and studied it carefully. 18th century Venice also had a famous orphanage for the incurable (Conservatorio degli incurabili). All in all, many of the people in this book really did live in their day, for example the musician Zabetta, or Cristofolo Cristofoli, Venetian inquisitor of the 18th century, but their fates were lost in the darkness of time, and have been reformulated here."
 

This originally published online novel is a very powerful meditation about God, Creation, resurrection and what Christ meant to humanity.

It is written in 5 chapters following a mysterious ring that is rumored to discern what the wearer will have in life - health, love or happiness depending on which color it turns, but somehow it always turns a color if any, only when the wearer is dead. So what does it mean?

Chapter 1, 3 and 5 are contemporary, following the narrator, an elderly writer who is already 40 days dead at the beginning of the novel, his strange and strangely met wife, and several other mysterious characters, real and supernatural.

"Of course it could not have been me, her husband, on the phone, for I had been laid to rest forty days before at the Belgrade cemetery at 50 Roosevelt Street."

Chapter 2 is about a Serbian emigre writer/editor in Venice ~ 1764 and his adventures and misadventures with some venetian girls, Anna and Sabetta.

"On a foggy day in May of 1764 Mr. Zaharija Orfelin received a new name, of which he was totally unaware."

Chapter 4 is about an orthodox Serbian under-priest - "hieromonk" on the border between the Hapsburgs and the Turks from 1717 to some decades later and his fateful encounter with a catholic priest and reputed alchemist and necromancer. 

This chapter is the philosophical heart of the novel and the discussion between the two encapsulates it perfectly. I am not an expert in theology so I have no idea how original are the arguments there - but they are very interesting and they make the book worth reading if only for that.

Whimsical, always interesting and beautifully written, Second Body is an extraordinary novel and a coronation of a magistral career.

*************************************************************



Last Love in Constantinopole - or the Tarot novel

"The adventures of a Serbian cavalry officer during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel comes with a pack of tarot cards and the way they turn up determines the sequence in which the chapters should be read."

This novel is structured in 22 chapters - keys based on the major arcana of the Tarot cards - and in the appendix there is a cutout for the 22 cards and a short dictionary explaining their meaning as well as several ways of using them either for divination or for reading the novel.

The chapters of the book are interconnected short stories that progress somewhat linearly though with liberal detours in the past or through the fantastic, so they can be read relatively independently.

"IN addition to his mother tongue, he also spoke Greek, French, Italian and Turkish. He was born in Trieste into a family of Serbian merchants and patrons of the theatre, who had ships in the Adriatic and wheat and vineyards on the Danube. Since childhood he had served in the unit of his father, French cavalry officer Haralampije Opujic. He knew that when charging on horseback or making love exhaling was more important than inhaling."

The prose is beautiful and the novel is absolutely fascinating. It follows the interconnected fortunes of two Serbian families, one of merchants that provides several soldiers for Napoleon, and one of artists that provides several soldiers for the Hapsburg Empire. The action takes place in 1797 and 1813, and the main character is Captain Haralampije Opujic, a larger than life Napoleonic officer, him of 3 deaths and Last Love in the title. A famous womanizer, party-goer and marksman, he has a counterpart in Hapsburg musician turned officer and marksman Pahomije Tenecki - their famous encounter of 1797 becoming stuff of legend.

In 1813, their sons - and here we have the second main character and actually the one getting most face-time in the novel, Sofronije Opujic, a Napoleonic lieutenant and his Hapsburg counterpart captain Pana Tenecki face off too.

There are also quite a few women, some lovers of both elder Opujic and Tenecki, as well as of elder and younger Opujic, some that are related to them in various ways as well as with the Tenecki's and assorted odd characters, most notably an orphan, Avksentije Papila, classmate of one of elder Opujic's illegitimate sons who is presumed to be able to tell the day of death for most people...

A short but very, very engaging read at about 160 pages, and worth of at least one reread to get all the details - highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“The Incrementalists” by Steven Brust & Skyler White (Reviewed by Casey Blair)


Order “The IncrementalistsHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

Imagine a centuries-old conspiracy to make the world better, a little bit at a time.

Now imagine a group of master manipulators maneuvering each other in a game where no one really understands the rules, let alone the stakes.

Take that and drop everything against the backdrop of the World Series of Poker and Las Vegas, and we begin to approach The Incrementalists. And I really do mean begin, because there is nothing like this book.

The Incrementalists is a collaboration between Steven Brust and Skyler White, coming out from Tor Books (September 24, 2013). This is one of those novels that I want to go back and re-read immediately, because I know I didn't catch everything the first time through. And I'll probably catch more on the next re-read, and the next, and that's really cool.

This isn't one of those books where you learn the magic rules and can figure out how the character will be able to apply them; it's nothing so formulaic. Every time you think you've got a handle on it, someone does something unexpected and the characters have to scramble to cope and adapt. Which is not to say that it felt haphazard; each new complication seemed, in retrospect, inevitable, so when the revelations hit, they hit hard.

The main characters are not mind-bogglingly brilliant, but you see their particular genius through certain lenses. Ren looks at the world through user interfaces and Phil through poker. Their voices are completely distinct — I always knew who was talking at which time, and so I always knew when Celeste had appeared in the same way the characters did — and the tone still meshes beautifully throughout.

The prose is straightforward and crisp, and then sometimes they do things with words that are absolute magic. I loved how the triggers involved so many weird combinations of senses, and they really fleshed out not just the characters to whom they belonged, but the ones who stored them, the worlds they came from and were stored in.

The Incrementalists are a secret society with a common goal of making the world better, but they're not all proponents of the same ideology — and what constitutes “better” is not the main point of the book. For a novel ostensibly about people all about meddling, we don't see much overt meddling to that end. At least, not on a grand scale, and that does matter. There is a lot of little, seemingly inconsequential meddling, which never is, really.

To me, the story had less to do with how the Incrementalists approach making the world better as with how they approach living. Even the characters who have lived for generations are very human; they're not doing things For the Greater Good, per se, but because of how they feel. However intellectual they may be, in the end decisions and choices are born out of their emotions. I loved how well, and how little, these people know each other. I love that the romance is not hinged on concrete reasons why the characters love each other, just that it's inexorable.

I think my very favorite thing about The Incrementalists, though, is that it assumes you're intelligent enough to follow it, and that the story is intelligent enough that I feel rewarded for understanding the gems. There is no extra explanation for the reader; the reader is expected to step up. There is never too much exposition at once, and yet there's always just enough to make me want to know how much more there is to know. There is a lot of in-world jargon, and there is a learning curve, and it is worth your time to invest in it.
Monday, September 23, 2013

Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Q&A with the author

AUTHOR INFORMATION: John Lawton is a producer/director in television who has written 1963, a social and political history of the Kennedy-Macmillan years, seven thrillers in the Troy series and a stand-alone novel, Sweet Sunday. He spent most of the 90s in New York but currently lives in Derbyshire UK. He has also edited the poetry of DH Lawrence and the stories of Joseph Conrad. He is devoted to the work of Franz Schubert, Cormac McCarthy, Art Tatum and Barbara Gowdy.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Joe Wilderness is a World War II orphan, a condition that he thinks excuses him from common morality. Cat burglar, card sharp, and Cockney wide boy, the last thing he wants is to get drafted. But in 1946 he finds himself in the Royal Air Force, facing a stretch in military prison . . . when along comes Lt Colonel Burne-Jones to tell him MI6 has better use for his talents.

Posted to occupied Berlin, interrogating ex-Nazis, and burgling the odd apartment for MI6, Wilderness finds himself with time on his hands and the devil making work. He falls in with Frank, a US Army captain, with Eddie, a British artilleryman and with Yuri, a major in the NKVD and together they lift the black market scam to a new level. Coffee never tasted so sweet. And he falls for Nell Breakheart, a German girl who has witnessed the worst that Germany could do and is driven by all the scruples that Wilderness lacks.

Fifteen years later, June 1963. Wilderness is free-lance and down on his luck. A gumshoe scraping by on divorce cases. Frank is a big shot on Madison Avenue, cooking up one last Berlin scam . . . for which he needs Wilderness once more. Only now they're not smuggling coffee, they're smuggling people. And Nell? Nell is on the staff of West Berlin's mayor Willy Brandt, planning for the state visit of the most powerful man in the world: "Ich bin ein Berliner!"

FORMAT/INFO: Then We Take Berlin is 400 pages long divided into two hundred and five chapters that are spread out over three titled sections. The main POV characters are John Wilfrid Holderness and Nell Burkhardt who are presented in third-person along with a few others. This is the first book in a new series by the author.

September 3, 2013 marked the hardcover publication of Then We Take Berlin and was published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

ANALYSIS: I’ve never read John Lawton book before this one. He’s had a previous series, which featured a character set in the pre-WWII era. This book however featured a whole new character and is mostly set partly just after the WWII & then in the 1960s. The story was a strong one but I was partially wrong in regards to the nature of the book.

The story begins in 1963 wherein John Wilfrid Holderness is happily married to Judy but has fallen on rather lean times. He gets called into New York City; by his old wartime associate Frank Spoleto. Frank is a member in the Carver, Sharma and Dunn advertising agency. Joe is a person brought up on the East end side of London. He’s gained his wits after his mother’s death in the German blitz and since then has been brought up by his grandfather. Joe's grandpa Abner is a cat burglar with a particular eye for cracking safes. He moves into Joe’s house with his paramour Merle who sometimes moonlights as a street lady. Joe’s father is a brute who works in the army & whenever he’s home beats Joe, threatens Abner & generally makes life miserable for everyone. Christina Helene Von Raeder "Nell" Burkhardt is an orphan sent to live with her uncle by her mother as Berlin falls. She however faces the brutal impact of the German loss after WWII. Her acceptance of her familial losses leads her to become a very morally hardened person that will thrive in the post war black market. She currently is the person that is tasked by the mayor of Berlin with creating President J.F. Kennedy’s itinerary for his 1963 trip to Berlin.

With these POV characters, we are taken to their teenage years as we are shown how the war has affected Britain and Germany and then we are shown the different career paths taken by Joe and Nell both. The main story unfolds in post war Germany as the author portrays a bleak if not entirely abject atmosphere. The reader is shown how both these characters come to become the characters we have met at the start of the book in 1963. The author’s research is where the main story gets its backbone from & while I’m no expert, to me it was a very captivating read. The author shows us how the black marketers went about and how Joe and Nell meet each other while doing their own things.

While these are the main POV characters, there’s a big side character cast who are equally enigmatic, interesting and flawed. They are the people that Joe meets such as Lieutenant Colonel A. Burne-Jones & Rada, who shape his worldview while saving him from his self-destructive tendencies and wizen him for the world. There are also Abner & Merle who in turn become parent figures to Joe but because of their own acts scar his psyche in small but significant ways. With Nell, there’s a whole range of folks that come across her path and mold her into the person she is by death, savagery, sympathy & even a little serendipity.

With this book, I thought it to be a standalone but I was sadly mistaken about that as the climax proved oh so strongly. But to get to the meat of the plot, it is about the tragic circumstances that were prevalent in Berlin divided into East & West sections. Firstly the main group of characters used to smuggle goods like cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, etc. but now nearly fifteen years later are tasked to smuggle people and therein lies the whole Herculean quandary as to how to go about it.

The book serves like a prologue to the lengthy events that are to come as the author goes all out in building up his world for the modern readers to visualize & imagine. The characterization is competently handled as all characters are given pages & time to entrance the reader but the book suffers from this as the pace stutters quite a bit in the first half of the book. While the author shows the growth of the world and the main characters, he takes his time and therein lies the catch-22 situation, for some readers will love the author for this move while others will castigate him for taking his time to get to the meat of the plot. I found myself hoping that the slack pace would pick up but it wasn’t something that happened quickly.

Lastly the ending is a bit of a stunner and would have been better appreciated had I know that this book was the first of a series and not a standalone. As the climax occurred, I kept flipping pages to see if my ARC was missing pages but afterwards I learnt that this was how the book ended and perhaps a line saying, “to be continued” would have been nice. Overall I have to say while this book had its faults; overall it is still a good book for its strengths make it all worthwhile in the end.

CONCLUSION: This was my first tryst with John Lawton’s works and I have to say I’m impressed. He seems to be utterly fascinating with his historical thrillers and herein he does his best to introduce a new cast of characters for fans of his Inspector Troy series. Then We Take Berlin is simply a good historical thriller that perhaps needed bit of tightening in its middle to liven up its pace.
Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Strange Bodies" by Marcel Theroux (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


"Whatever this is, it started when Nicky Slopen came back from the dead.

Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months. So when a man claiming to be Nicholas turns up to visit an old girlfriend, deception seems the only possible motive.
Yet nothing can make him change his story.

From the secure unit of a notorious psychiatric hospital, he begins to tell his tale: an account of attempted forgery that draws the reader towards an extraordinary truth – a metaphysical conspiracy that lies on the other side of madness and death.

With echoes of Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Mary Shelley, Dostoevsky’s Double, and George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, Strange Bodies takes the reader on a dizzying speculative journey that poses questions about identity, authenticity, and what it means to be truly human"


After Far North (FBC short rv), the wonderfully written but pretty banal in content as a run of the mill post-apocalyptic story that could have been so much more, I kept an eye on any new offerings from Marcel Theroux, so Strange Bodies went my "wanted list" the moment I found about it. 

The blurb above strongly reminded me of 9 Tail Fox, the second of a loose trilogy by J.C. Grimwood which imho is arguably the best recent series of near-future literary sf (see also FBC's review of the last installment, End of the World Blues).

However on opening the novel, the style and "feel" reminded me of Adam Roberts' books - and to put this in context, I consider A. Roberts the best literary sf writer of today - and Strange Bodies became another impossible to put down novel until finished.

Mostly a current first person narrative from the deceased Nicholas Slopen - crushed by a lorry when biking in London a year or so before the start of the book, his death is strongly documented and cannot be doubted - the dramatic and suspenseful storyline is interspersed with documents that Nicky uses to authenticate his otherwise strange story, documents that include seemingly original letters from Samuel Johnson that nobody has heard of - and Nicky is maybe the second ranked world expert on the famous Dr. Johnson - , excerpts from the diary of his psychiatrist at Bedlam - obviously when someone claims to be a dead man and goes and "harasses" the dead man's wife and children, the madhouse, however euphemistically called today, is clearly his place - revelatory emails and other stuff I leave you to discover...

Here is Nicky as seen through the eyes of Dr. Webster from Bedlam who calls him Q and maybe even gets a little crush on him despite the strong taboo on doctor-patient involvement; at least Nicky figures out soon how to manipulate her; the bolded words encompass the feel of the novel almost perfectly:

"Q is silent for half a minute and then his manner becomes conciliatory:
– I haven’t got long, you know.
– Long?
Q is silent again, then asks if I like haiku. I tell him I do. Q recites.
– This world of dew is a world of dew. And yet, and yet.
His recitation is slow and full of affect. For the first time in our sessions, the countertransference produces a pronounced sense of melancholy. I ask him again why he’s sad.
– I miss my family.
– Your family?  
– My children, Sarah and Lucius."

Except for the relatively conventional device of "powerful interests determined to get their way regardless of morality etc etc" that towards the end distracts from what is otherwise such a powerful and moving tale, Strange Bodies is an extraordinary book that asks these fundamental questions: "who am I", "what makes me me so to speak"? 

While the answers - as they are since after all the book is literary sf so it doesn't claim to find the secret of  life, universe and everything - are not necessarily anything not seen before, the narrative voice is so compelling to make it a top 25 novel of mine for 2013. Worth at least one re-read to appreciate even better the little touches the author puts in here and there, but whose full import is not clear until one understands clearly what is what, Strange Bodies firmly puts the author on my "get and read asap any new book" list.
  
I will end this with a quote from the actual beginning of Nicky's narrative as the first few pages you can read in say the Amazon sample consist of a sort of introduction from a former girlfriend Nicky appeals to in his last desperate moments...

"My name is Nicholas Patrick Slopen. I was born in Singapore City on April 10th 1970. I died on September 28th 2009, crushed in the wheel arch of a lorry outside Oval tube station.
 This document is my testimony.
 As will shortly become clear, I have an unknown but definitely brief period of time to explain the events leading up to my death and to establish the continuity of my identity after it. In view of the constraints upon me, I hope the reader will forgive my forgoing the usual niceties of autobiography. At the same time, I will have to commit myself to some details with a certain, and perhaps wearisome, degree of exactitude in order to provide evidence to support the contention contained in the first paragraph of this testimony: that I am Nicholas Slopen, and that my consciousness has survived my bodily death."

Saturday, September 21, 2013

GUEST POST: World Building Schmerld Building, or Why I Don’t Give A Flying Snitch About Your World by Anton Strout


When not frantically grinding the sausage that is the next Spellmason Chronicles book (such as the just releasing Stonecast), I try to give back to the writing community that gave me my first shot. My chance at being a Published Author was a short story submission in the mid 2000s that came from attending the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con, so I feel I owe it to try and pay my career forward by passing along any type of advice I've come up with that wish I had had back in the day.

Not that I've Mastered My Craft (a term I deplore), mind you. With four Simon Canderous paranormal detective novels and now writing the third in the Spellmason Chronicles, I’m still learning new things every damned day.

As part of my paying it forward, I read a lot of submissions during read and critique sessions at conventions. Some see me as the Simon Cowell panelist, which I don’t mind. I consider him brutal but honest, and if you put your ego aside and listen, you’ll actually learn something. And when I do these sessions, I do hope the new or unseasoned writer trembling before me does learn. I want them to succeed, but first they need to contend with what I see as the number one problem that comes before me in these sessions.

WORLD BUILDING:

Look, new and fragile writer, I get it. You came up with an awesome idea set in a world that is blowing your creative mind. You've thought about the climate, the currency, the society, the monsters, how people survive for a living… you've given it your all.

Here’s the thing to remember: I don’t give a crap about your world.

At least, not yet.

Why? Because time and time again I see the new writer spend the first twenty or thirty pages showing me all his clever world building. Lush descriptive passages of the climate or a village, the fact that in your world it rains from the ground up into the sky…

Thing is, you’re not writing Fodor’s Guide to Rigel Seven, writers. I don’t care about you spelling out your world to me like it’s a travel guide (and this is how they do read almost every session). That’s stuff the author needs to know but readers don’t. I’d argue that that level of telling us about the world you crated doesn't need to be included in the book very much at all.

So what do I care about? Your characters, and I’ll only care about the fact that it rains from the ground up in your world once a character steps out their front door and water rushes up their pant leg because they forgot to tie their weatherproof pants shut. Now, I know it rains from the ground up and I care because your poor hero’s underwear is soaked and most of us can identify with their misery.

The trick of world building—as I see it—is: I only want to know about your world as far as it affects your characters in the moment of the plot.


If you want to see it done well, read Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. When his main character is reduced to being a beggar/musician, I learned exactly how the currency of the world worked because he needed to scrape together x amount of money for the most basic of needs—food. Nowhere does Mr. Rothfuss stop to give us a lecture on how the currency of the world works. Only through Kvothe’s needs do we learn it, and Pat is such a master world builder that while I was reading the book I found I easily knew how to make change in the currency.

And that didn't come from reading a conversion chart in a travel guide. And, yes, as a writer of modern fantasy, I've got it a bit easier. I can type out “the Empire State Building” and I don’t need to describe it to 95% of you. Your knowledge of our modern world fills in the rest.

That said, the burden of modern era fantasy writers then becomes making sure you tell readers what is different from reality in your book’s world. I don’t need to go on and on describing the Empire State Building, except to let you know that my main characters are about to contend with an infestation of zombies on the 36th floor. It’s also probably in my best interest to let the reader know how the Average Joe on the street would react if he saw one: Would he run or is seeing zombies normal in this world? Again, seeing how the characters react to the monsters would inform the reader what the tone of your world is. Reactions add richness.

Now, writing urban fantasy isn't a walk in the park, world building wise. Writing the modern fantasy comes with its own special brand of burdens, but in either modern or traditional fantasy, the world building is for the author’s notebook more so than being something to fill the opening chapters with. Trust me, when an editor sees that, they can’t put your submission down fast enough.

You've got a lot of cool ideas about how your world should be built, all the particulars. Write them down. After all, you as the author should have a full working knowledge of them, but treat those details of your world like salt, not the actual meat of the book itself.

They are ingredients that help make up a well seasoned pot of plot. Too much salt, you ruin it. You’re trying to improve the flavor of the book stew, not overwhelm it, so think twice before dumping the whole thing of salt in.

You don’t want to leave your readers with a bad taste in their mouth, do you?


Official Author Website
Read Lisa's review of Alchemystic 
Read Qwill's interview with Anton Strout
Order Stonemason HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anton Strout was born in the Berkshire Hills mere miles from writing heavyweights Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and currently lives in the haunted corn maze that is New Jersey. He is the author of the Simon Canderous urban fantasy series and Alchemystic, book one of the upcoming Spellmason Chronicles & the soon to-be-released Stonecast.

NOTE: Author picture & Stonemason book cover courtesy of the author. Kingkiller series covers courtesy of Fan SF.

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