Armada Is Fucking Terrible

Ernie Cline’s novel Armada dropped last week with an enormous publicity campaign that’s sure to get this book selling exceptionally well. Cline has been riding high on his debut novel, Ready Player One, an Easter-egg infused novel that hit the nerd sweet spot with a hefty dose of references and nostalgia. The problem with Armada is that it’s absolutely, fucking terrible.

The plot is basic. A spacecraft drops by the school of one high school gamer, Zack Lightman, and tells him what absolutely every gamer wants to hear: Aliens are about to attack Earth and a secret military organization has shepherded video games, movies, novels and television shows to help attune humanity into fighting back against the alien invaders. On top of all that, Lightman’s one of the top gamers in the world, and that because of his scores in Armada, he’s one of the last best hopes for humanity. He’s brought to a secret base on the Moon, where he meets his long-lost (and presumed dead) father, who’s helping to oversee the counter attack.

I enjoyed Ready Player One quite a bit: it was a fun read that had some neat recursive things going for it: it was a book about a video game that relied on the tropes and conventions of real-world video game history, and it worked well enough. Armada is a pretty far cry away from this, going through a story that’s essentially a rehash of Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter. Hardly a sentence goes by without Cline dropping a reference to something from the 1980s, and as it becomes more cringe-worthy, it feels as though Cline is simply stuck in the past, unable or unwilling to grow beyond geek-man-child stage and reenter the present.

This bothers me a great deal. The decade was responsible for an incredible surge of creative properties, but it isn’t the only decade when it comes to science fiction or fantasy; you’d never guess it from the endless references. Geeks have always been interested in shibboleth, sorting out who belongs and who doesn’t in nerd circles. Cline, throughout Ready Player One and Armada, drops references to everything from films to television to games to the occasional novel, and seems to be establishing a sort of precedent: if you don’t recognize these sacred tomes, you don’t belong. If you haven’t put in the hours that Zack Lightman and Wade Watts have in establishing their own geek cred, you’re not a ‘true’ geek worthy of the title.

There’s been a bunch of stories that have been incredibly popular that seem to do this sort of listing: Cline’s novels, for one, but also shows such as The Big Bang Theory, is essentially lightly-improvised lines of dialogue strung together with a whole bunch of ‘in the know’ references to any number of geek things. The obsession with checking off the boxes and making a set of qualifications to weed out outsiders isn’t anything new to the science fiction or fantasy circles, but it’s tiring to see after such a long history.

There’s the story of a geek guy meeting a geek girl, where he interrupts her when she expresses an interest in Star Wars or Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica and interrogates her on the minutia of the world. I’ve seen it happen before (hell, I’ve probably done it myself), and it’s just flat out not good for any sort of community. There’s the personal stories of that one lone geek at high school who gets picked on or slammed into a locker for carrying around a Star Wars novel, D&D Manual or Magic: The Gathering Cards, and how the stories that they read carried them through those dark times. Never mind that High School isn’t some sort of fantasy quest to be metaphorically endured, I sometimes wonder about the widespread validity of those stories, or if it’s just a story that we tell ourselves as part of our collective nerd mythology. As books like this and shows such as The Big Bang Theory have demonstrated (not to mention my hometown, where you can spot shirts of Superman, Flash and Green Lantern on the local rednecks) Geek stories appeal to just about everyone, especially now. I think it says more about the high school kid with problems getting along with his classmates and less to do with the kid who blew through Ender’s Game for the tenth time.

Within this archetype story, we always complain that we wished that there were more people who were into Star Wars, D&D and McCaffrey’s Pern novels, but when it comes to the end of the day, we seem to filter out the people who we don’t perceive as being good enough, unless their interests and backgrounds line up perfectly with our own. I’ve seen many people get worked up over the quality of other costumers at conventions and how they’ve only jumped on some sort of bandwagon because science fiction and fantasy movies dominate the box office.

Some people might be attracted to it because it’s popular and because they saw a film/book/game that looked cool with plenty of people watching/reading/playing it. But so what? Why do you need to be born in the mid-1970s to properly appreciate standing in line for Star Wars or ET? Are you really less of a fan of The Lord of the Rings if you saw the films in the theaters and rushed to the store to pick up the books because you enjoyed it so much? Personally, I want as many people as possible to read/watch/enjoy science fiction and fantasy, so that we can have a richer community of fellow nerds.

This isn’t a good book on a story side, by any stretch of the imagination. Where Ready Player One was entertaining and goofy, this just got tedious and annoying to read. The references had a point in the story – it was a hunt for Easter eggs. Here, they’re just annoying and don’t really serve any point other than to establish, over and over again, that Lightman (read: Cline) is a nerdy kid. We get that from the first couple of pages. Armada feels very much like Cline trying to find some way to make a nerdy adolescent existence mean something greater than it really is. But in doing so, he sets out to define what exactly a geek is, and that vision is limited only to the references he lists off, which is a pretty limiting list of things: science fiction / fantasy did some pretty cool things in the 1990s/2000s, but you would hardly guess it from what Cline/His characters list off.

I really despise this manufactured image of a geek-man-child and related stories, as much as I’m made uncomfortable by the people who rush to fill the role. Armada is a book that rushes to fill that role, and in doing so, it ignores just about everything that makes a book readable: likable characters, a plot that makes sense (seriously, the ending is a pretty spectacular failure), and good supporting characters and elements that support the story rather than prop it up. When it isn’t cringe-worthy to read, it’s Picard-facepalm worthy when it comes to actually being a good story. Any novel that ends with (SPOILERS) something completely out of left field along the lines of ‘and then the aliens came and cured cancer, entered us into an intergalactic hegemony and then everyone lived happily ever after the end’, you’ve got a serious fucking problem. Maybe Cline is doing something more clever – subverting the tropes of video games to pull out a satirical work of fiction that makes us think differently about the genre. If that’s the case, you’d never guess under the weight of its failure of characters and story.

This is wish-fulfillment fiction, through and through, from the situation Lightman finds himself in to the few constructed, idealized women who appear in the book. Wish fulfillment isn’t necessarily bad: what person playing a video game hasn’t wanted to save the world? But how many people use it to define their existence? Lightman, in saving the world, has his many hours validated. He even puts in a scene at the end where his accomplishments are acknowledged by the high school bully who beat up on him!

Armada would work perfectly if there was some recursive thing about it that made all the references make sense. There’s been plenty of books / movies like this that went heavy on the nostalgia: John Scalzi’s Redshirts comes to mind, along with Austin Grossman’s fantastic novel You or even movies like Galaxy Quest. But the thing that made those books / movies excellent aren’t in Armada: it’s just an annoying, tedious read that made me want to throw the book across the room when I finished it.

Book Review: The Human Division, by John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s latest addition to his Old Man’s Warseries, The Human Division, opens with a bang. A diplomatic ship skips into a system in preparation for a high level meeting with an alien race, only to get blown out of space by an unknown attacker. What follows is a Heinlein-ian thrill ride that tilts the balance of power in the galaxy – that’s just the first episode.

Taking place after The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division is notable for a couple of reasons: it’s a long-awaited addition to the popular series, which left on a somewhat ambiguous note. The book – I’d hesitate to call it a novel – is also an experimental one that pulls in the digital and audio logistical footprints in ways that haven’t really been possible before now. And finally, the book is notable because it is an interesting, exciting, and somewhat more mature addition to the series.

The Human Division picks up just months after Earth was confronted with an Alien fleet, led by Major John Perry, who revealed some disturbing truths behind the planet’s relationship with the Colonial Union. Faced with intense competition from over six hundred alien species and the rise of an organized group known as the Conclave, the Colonial Union, which relied on humanity’s home world for a large supply of recruits. What follows in this set of stories is the aftermath.

The sheer scale of The Human Division lends itself to be a difficult one for a conventional book, and this is where the novel’s structure comes in handy. Rather than chapters, we’re treated to thirteen episodes, bookended by two double-size episodes. Over the course of the spring, each of the thirteen episodes have been released on a weekly basis for those with e-readers and the various online retailers. If eBooks aren’t your thing, each episode was available in an audio file through Audible and iTunes. In this way, the episodes don’t necessarily form a linear course like you might find in a novel. Rather, they’re thirteen individual segments of the story that, when placed together, give you a coherent story. It’s not too dissimilar from what you might find with a television series. Indeed – there’s too much for a single novel, and the cliffhanger ending is reminiscent of what you’d find in most SF TV shows at the end of the season.

I like this format. We’ve talked a little about serialized science fiction already, and with the rise of mobile devices and eReaders, it’s a format that works well with the available technology. The story that Scalzi’s presenting is far-reaching, and there’s excellent coverage for the various ramifications of the events in Colonial Union-held space. We see diplomats under fire, hijacked space ships, political discourse, paranoid radio talk-show hosts, terrorist bombings and a truely epic finale.

The central focus of The Human Division the crew of the Clarke: Colonial Defense Force Lieutenant Harry Wilson and Colonial Union Diplomat Hart Schmidt, Captain Sophia Coloma and Ambassador Ode Abumwe, and a handful of other regulars. The Clarke stories are the backbone of this tale, and if this were the television series the format emulates, they would be the main cast listed on the opening credits. The side stories draw in other characters: General Gau (seen in prior books), members of a wildcat colony, a CDF fire team, the survivor of a hijacked ship and a political talk show host who finds himself in much deeper waters than he thought. There’s generally a point in most episodes where the characters stand around and explain what’s happening to one another, which is a little annoying when you remember that this isn’t a television show, but a work of prose fiction. It works, in this context, but it feels as though it plays more towards the strengths of a motion picture, rather than a book, which seems to limit the characters a bit (but not so much the action). But, where they have their flaws, they also add in quite a bit of side material that adds to the main action’s context, which was very helpful.

When it comes to the non-Clarke episodes, some are engaging, such as The Sound of Rebellion, which carried forward a couple of interesting, underused characters. Walk the Plank, seemed to exist only to put a couple of things into action. It, along with This Must Be The Place, felt like under-utilized space. These are all small story fragments that in and of themselves are solid, but taken on their own, don’t do much. There’s also points where some of the details are redundant, because each episode is designed to somewhat stand alone. It’s when they’re assembled that a pretty interesting, overarching story comes into focus, and that’s where the real strengths of The Human Division are apparent.

I worked to sample the series in all of its incarnations: audio tracks, downloadable segments, and finally, the full novel, and overall, this works best reading it from start to finish in book form, but the individual ebooks/audio tracks are well worth picking up as well. Reading all of these in conjunction with one another, on a variety of platforms, highlighted the multi-purpose strength of this novel, which is what makes it the most notable literary experiment of its kind. The final version has some added material that doesn’t really add much to the overall storyline, but it was nice to see it included. I also found that while the book was designed to be accessible to newcomers to the series, it helps to have at least read Old Man’s War and more importantly, The Last Colony. They’re not essential, but when I went back to read TLC, a lot of plot elements fell into place, and provided some much-needed context. (Up to this point, I’d only read OMW.)

The most frustrating part of The Human Division lies with the overarching story, and with its similarities to a television show: there’s some good forward movement with the Clarke episodes, but there’s little resolution with the overarching story. Fortunately, a second ‘season’ of The Human Division has been commissioned, and we’ll be seeing more from the story in short order. But fans expecting a clear-cut novel will face a wait until the next book is released. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Scalzi has in store.

The bottom line: The Human Division flat out rocked. It’s a smart space opera novel that weaves together politics, characters and action that surpasses its predecessors in the series. For an experimental novel (and this isn’t the first online attempt at a serialized story), it seems to have mostly worked, and at points, worked incredibly well. More than just an experiment in the delivery medium, this is a fine read, and an excellent addition to the series. Season/Book 2 can’t come soon enough.

Book Review: Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis

In the introduction for The Other Half of the Sky, the book’s editor Athena Andreadis describes space opera in less than glowing terms: “Likewise, most SF aficionados conflate space opera with galactic empires, messianic anti/heroes (invariably white men) and gizmos up the wazoo, from death stars to individually customized viruses. And therein lies a tale of an immense, systemic failure of imagination.”

They’re harsh words for an incredibly popular genre: after all, when you lump in television and film, you’re essentially describing what most people think of as science fiction. But, they’re necessary words, because she’s completely right: space opera, and most of the Golden Age of SF, has often been described as being the age of 12. Andreadis’s anthology seeks to put together a group of stories that paints a picture of the other half of the sky’s occupants, and this book succeeds at its task in grand fashion.

The Other Half of the Sky is an impressive anthology of 16 stories, with an equally impressive group of authors. Well known authors such as Vandana Singh, Joan Slonczewski, Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Martha Wells, and Jack McDevitt are all included in this book, as well as several authors who were new to me: Christine Lucas, Kelly Jennings, Sue Lange, Nisi Shawl, and a couple of others. I first came across this anthology at the 2012 ReaderCon, where several authors held a reading of their works in the book. Then, it sounded interesting. In my hands, the book is an impressive group of stories.
The space opera of the 1950s contains a certain formula of characters and plot types: frequently, we’d have stories of plucky scientists discovering something extraordinary, heroes finding themselves in situations from which they had to extracate themselves, and some sort of logical puzzle that was solved through the protagonist’s wits and bluster. That’s an overly simplifed version, to be sure, but after a while, it gets boring. The Other Half of the Sky opens up a range of stories that aren’t necessarily new, but they’re not seen nearly as often.

Political and sociological intentions aside, this is a hell of an anthology. Ken Liu’s story, ‘Shape of Thought’ is an interesting take on family dynamics, while ‘Mimesis’, by Martha Wells, puts together a really cool alien world and society. One of my absolute favorite stories, however, is ‘Velocity’s Ghost’, by Kelly Jennings, following a bounty hunter in deep space. There’s certain value in a book that has positioned itself to make a statement, but there’s a greater value when the focus falls equally on the quality of the stories: this anthology focuses on the latter.

There’s a pointed message in this book: we can do that too, and in light of an entire range of conversations brewing around the SF community as of late, this book should be considered required reading. Far too often, it seems that there’s an attitude that women can’t or simply don’t write the sort of hard SF and space opera that’s traditionally been published. This book utterly crushes that assumption with its incredible range of stories and superior level of writing that’s consistent throughout the entire anthology. The Other Half of the Sky is an anthology that’s long overdue, and I hope that it’ll serve as a good example for future authors and readers in the genre.

Review: Love Minus Eighty, by Will McIntosh

A common trait in science fiction literature is the promotion of the possibilities that are afforded by technology.

The standard of living for much of the population in the United States and other western countries seem to confirm this idea: technology makes our lives better. What’s less understood is how with technology, complications arise in ways that are unexpected. This is never more apparent in Will McIntosh’s latest novel, Love Minus Eighty.

A century from now, humanity has conquered death in some unexpected ways. Cryogenics, a favorite escape in a number of science fiction novels, has been perfected, and the average person can expect a long and healthy life. If you’re wealthy, or critically important to your job, you can expect to be revived in the instance of an accident or suicide. If you meet certain beauty criteria, you can be placed in a Dating Center, where the wealthy can try and find the perfect match, frozen in the minus eighty. It’s a terrifying concept.

That’s exactly what happens when Rob accidentally runs over Winter with his car. Both were running from a hard breakup, and devastated, Rob scrapes up the several thousand dollars needed to visit Winter, confess his role in her death, and try to vindicate himself. After several visits, he falls head over heels for Winter, who’s time is slowly running out in the Dating Center. Along the way, he meets Nathan, Winter’s ex, and his friend Veronika, both of whom are dating experts who match people up with their perfect counterparts. What follows is a tangled, intricate dance of relationships between the group that forms, all of whom band behind Rob as he works to save Winter’s life.

This is where McIntosh is in firm territory. His prior novels, the fantastic Soft Apocalypseand Hitchers, are, at their core, about small communities of friends working together for a common cause. In Soft Apocalypse, it was trying to survive as the world declined, and there’s a lot of parallels with this novel (even a minor reference to it, early on). Love Minus Eighty does this well, first at building a group of characters who become friends, and then following them through as Rob pursues Winter and works to save her. Characters are where McIntosh works well, especially with the understanding that we’re not alone in the world: we’re supported and impacted by those around us.

In many ways, there’s no antagonist in this book, nor with Soft Apocalypse: the rotating cast of characters features people with good and bad intentions, but with no single person who’s actively countering the protagonist. Here, Rob fights for time against the big cryogenics companies whose policies will spell an end for Winter. And this is fitting, in this day and age, where we’re at the mercy of major corporations whose services we use all the time.

There’s a neat parallel narrative here as well, with the divide between the ultra rich and middle-to-poor classes very apparent. The uber rich aren’t preoccupied with normal problems or relationships. Lorelei uses both Rob and Nathan in her relationships as a stepping stone to new viewers in her own reality show that is her life, followed by thousands and millions of virtual screens in their augmented world. The men who frequent the dating centers can afford to blow thousands of dollars for a five minute visit with a frozen dead girl to fulfill their own white knight fantasies.

At the same time, there’s the awareness that the cryogenics dating centers and their policies are deeply, morally wrong. People are revived against their will, trapped in a container and brought to life for terrifying, teasing moments of time before being refrozen. It’s a wonderfully terrifying concept, and one that McIntosh is well suited for. Like his prior books, Love Minus Eighty brings together several very different themes and story elements (Dating in the apocalypse, cartoonists with ghosts hitched to their minds, cryogenic dating centers), and while there’s a bit of apprehension as the book is cracked open, that this one might be *too* out there, the pages vindicate the topic.

McIntosh is one of the best new science fiction authors of the last half-decade, and Love Minus Eighty really helps to keep up that reputation. It’s a fantastic book, filled with a rich, interesting world with a compelling narrative running inside of it. Moreover, it’s a visceral, exhilarating read that continually surprises as it plays out, and one that’ll be well worth reading during the hot summer months.

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan’s alternate Europe seen in A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, follows a young Victorian girl who has become obsessed with dragons. Writing at the end of a long life, she has begun to write her memoirs about her life’s work and adventures: the study of the mythical beasts. In this presumably first volume of many, Isabella journeys to Eastern Europe on her first expedition.

In Scirland (England) a young Isabella is fascinated at an early age by Sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures as common as birds, eventually preserving one in a jar of vinegar. This ignites a passion within her and sets her on a path of scientific exploration. A favored book is ‘A Natural History of Dragons‘, purchased by her father for his library, read over and over again throughout her childhood. Like our own Victorian era at the end of the 1800s, women faced a far more limited existence in society, confined to a regimented social life, and such curiosity is actively discouraged, a major factor that frustrates Isabella throughout the novel.

As a child, her interest with a visit by a drake on her family’s property which brings her face to face with one of the beasts. She grows out of her obsessive streak for years after her encounter, but eventually meets and marries Jacob, a man of some status, and their shared interest rekindles her curiosity. Her father, during the vetting process, ensured that her suitors were in possession of a library of their own, and as a bonus, Jacob happens to own a copy of ‘A Natural History of Dragons’. Isabella and Jacob, a somewhat happily married couple, are unconventional for their time: she’s strong willed, while he tries to keep up. Shortly after their marriage, they meet a notable explorer and citizen-scientist Lord Hilford and are invited along on an expedition to Vystrana (really, the Balkans or somewhere nearby in Eastern Europe), where they’re to study the dragons of the region. There, they find a bit more than they’re expecting.

A Natural History of Dragons is an interesting book with a lopsided structure that will undoubtedly smooth out if another adventure is written about Lady Trent. There’s clearly an episodic nature here, and it’s frustrating at points to see references to other, untold adventures, where there’s clearly the intention to write more later, rather than simply allowing the book to rest on its obvious strengths. The story also has less to do with dragons than I anticipated going into this read: while they’re a central focus of the plot, they’re seen only sparingly, while during the second half of the novel, a subplot with smugglers and local politics is the main driver of the story.

Setting the novel up as a fictional memoir out of the Victorian era is an interesting choice. Steampunk has been an immensely popular subgenre of late, and while this doesn’t have any overt steampunk features, it’s a good example of fiction looking back into the past for inspiration. It’s a particularly well-timed novel, as it features a female protagonist who’s cutting against the cultural grain in a time where women were expected to hold to a certain model. Reading this as the Violence Against Women Act was renewed by the United States Congress is a pertinent reminder that the role women play in speculative fiction is a highly relevant one, and it’s fantastic to read a story led by the strong-willed Isaella, who’s armed with her wits and intelligence to both conduct research and solve a mystery. A Natural History of Dragons harkens back to the era of Science Romances, science fiction written during a time when there was much unknown about the world, before blank points on the maps had been filled. It lends much to the style of stories from Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, with a real modern sensibility. While the story is ostensibly a fantasy, it has the heart of a science fiction novel, in the spirit of exploration and scientific endeavor.

Finally, an added element to A Natural History of Dragons is the artwork. Drawn up by Todd Lockwood, who’s known for his distinctive dragons, this novel has one of the more striking covers to grace the front of a novel in recent years. In addition to that, there are a number of illustrations throughout the book’s pages, presumably drawn by Lady Trent. It’s an added touch to the story and the entire packaged product. In my opinion, the cover alone makes the price of admission worth it.

A Natural History of Dragons is at its heart, a nostalgic book: there’s adventure to be had, with a cast of characters out to find adventure and knowledge at all ends of the Earth. It reminds me much of such stories as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where science and exploration were the central focus and it’s a good viewpoint to have. At the end of the day, Brennan’s novel is a fun read, and I’m hopeful that more adventures of Lady Trent are forthcoming.

Book Review: The Burn Zone, by James K. Decker

The fast-paced world of James K. Decker’s The Burn Zone is an excellent example of a growing movement within the genre: a recognition that Planet Earth is a complicated and diverse place. Here, we have a society that isn’t a cookie cutter facsimile of the United States and where the protagonist isn’t a Caucasian male. Taking place in cyberpunkish Hangfei, Xiao-Xing (Nicknamed Sam) blasts through the city where she’s pursued by a number of parties who will stop at nothing to keep her from unraveling their destructive plans.

The Burn Zone takes place sometime in our future, where Earth’s population has swelled to beyond fifteen billion people, and has a new intelligent race on its surface, the Haan. The alien race has apparently come in peace: stranded, they have to roll out technology to humanity in a series of organized stages, and have begun a cooperative exchange program. Starving and looking to become a parent, Sam has become a part of this surrogate program, fostering Haan infants. Her life is turned upside down when a squad of soldiers, led by a female Haan, burst into her apartment and drag off her adoptive father. This touches off an intense read as Sam finds herself tested to her absolute limits and places her in the midst of a plot that could doom humanity.

This book rests comfortably on its well formed characters, and who band around Sam as the Haan and government agents follow closely behind. There’s Nix, an outcast Haan who had been sent to kill her, and Vamp, a hacker, who back up Sam as she tries to figure out why her adoptive father, Dragan, was dragged off for reportedly smuggling some sort of weapon into the country. His efforts to thwart his captors worked, leaving just enough clues to lead Sam and her friends on the right track to uncover the plot and derail its penetrators.

Sam is a neat central character in this book, and it’s nice to see an Asian, female character that doesn’t quite fit into the extremes of ‘tough, unemotional action girl’ and ‘emotional, vulnerable girl’. Rather, she’s somewhere in the middle: not afraid to ask for help from people who are close to her, but also strong enough to make and carry out decisions for herself. There’s a neat point where she’s offered tips to make her more desirable through plastic surgery by AI advertising, only to be shot down without a second thought.

The Haan and their back-story are also a neat element that gets unraveled as the story progresses. Inventing a wholly ‘alien’ alien race is a difficult task. How does one create something for which we have literally no context? Decker does a good job creating something interesting, yet relatable at the same time, weaving in themes of racism and environmentalism at the same time.

Finally, the world and story created here are grounded and plausible, taking equal parts District 9 and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The setting is bright with color, sound and smell as our characters crash through it, while the plot has some interesting points to make with technological innovation and the fate of the human race. There’s also a real sense that the stakes are high: Earth’s on the brink of environmental collapse due to overpopulation, and in a lot of ways, the Haan represent humanity’s only hope to survive, while Earth represents the Haan’s best chance for survival. The role which Sam plays isn’t coincidental, and it reveals quite a bit about the story that unfolds.

Decker does this entire juggling act well: he moves the action and characters along at a breakneck speed, and while his book could probably stand to shed a couple of redundant chapters, it follows a neatly organized plan that brings the reader along on a neatly plotted path. Ultimately, Decker’s characters are moralistic people who strive to do the right thing, heroes that we want to root for, who are in the right place to save their way of life. Dragan, coming across a plot to introduce a biological weapon into the country does what any good person would do: go to great lengths to pull out the firing pin before its too late. Sam is a good person for her role: she’s a rare person who’s been modified to help infant Haan, despite quite a bit of social opposition. It’s actions like these that come in handy along the way for all involved, and which ultimately aid them as the tension ratchets up. It’s a bit simplistic at points, but it’s refreshing to break away from the flood of ambiguous (but ultimately good) anti-heroes that seem to have populated the literary world in the recent years.

The Burn Zone is the equivalent of a fairly smart science fiction movie – Hollywood mechanics, but something that’s a cut above the typical summer blockbuster, and it hits a lot of the right buttons. It’s got plenty of action, a cast of smart characters, an intriguing plot that keeps the story running nicely, and a world that throws out a couple of neat surprises that don’t make me want to throw the book away. In a lot of ways, this book fits alongside some of the other recent SF thrillers, and this novel only adds to the growing ranks of solid science fiction adventures.

Book Review: The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian

It’s little wonder that Ariel Djanikian’s debut novel is being marketed as a novel for the Hunger Gamesgeneration: a futuristic world where conventional society has collapsed is the setting for The Office of Mercy, a utopian/post apocalyptic novel that presents a dark look at the extent of sciences and a twisted form of ethics.

Taking place three centuries after a devastating event – The Storm – that decimated humanity, utopian settlements have grown in the remnants of the new world. These settlements, sealed off from the wilderness are self contained structures, housing generations of citizens who live in an ideal world where technological advances provide food, medicine and everlasting life. Supporting this life is an ethical code that seeks to reduce suffering for all of humanity, guiding the Citizens as they live out their lives. Unfortunately, there’s an enormous population of people, descended from the survivors of The Storm who etch out a living in the wilderness. America-5, Natasha Wiley’s home, and others, have taken it upon themselves to reduce the perceived suffering of those in the wilderness. Just as one might seek to put a suffering animal down, members of the Office of Mercy do the same with fire, guns and bombs.

There’s a horrifying, misguided morality to America-5’s actions, one that slowly unfolds throughout the story. The people of America 5 firmly believe that they’re doing the right and humane thing, and this is where Djanikian really presents an interesting story. All totalitarian societies require a certain level of compliance from its members, and Natasha, stationed in the Office of Mercy, regularly carries out a systematic agenda of genocide against those from the outside world. It’s not called that, of course: their term for it is a Sweep, but murder is murder, as Natasha and a growing number of individuals come to understand over the course of this novel. Natasha becomes troubled by the policies of her office’s actions after a frightening encounter with one of the outside tribes, throwing her against everything that she’s been brought up to believe. Along the way, some dark truths come out about her life and those around her.

The twist on this novel is a deterministic one: what exactly governs behavior? Is it one’s intrinsic nature that makes someone who they are, or is it one’s surroundings that define them? These are philosophical questions that have been asked since Plato, and throughout the story, we see how America-5 works to ensure that it’s citizens are all on the same page: indoctrination from an early age, mental exercises, and a common environment that reinforces positive behavior. Most stories come down on one side, but interestingly, Djanikian comes down unexpectedly with Natasha after some truly unexpected revelations about her past. I’d been expecting something conventional from the book by the latter half, but rather than throw aside the circumstances of her life and upbringing and given a choice, she embraces it in the face of what life outside of the settlement is really like.

In a way, it’s a bit of a disappointing ending for the book, because it cuts against the traditional meme, but in doing so, Djanikian sets up an interesting exchange between a highly technological and science oriented side and it’s polar opposite. On one hand, you have a society that has conquered death, but in doing so, embraces horrific practices to ensure their survival. On the other hand, you have a society that’s desperate to survive, and will go to extreme lengths to do so and it’s never quite clear which side is morally superior, as both engage in some pretty horrific acts by the end of the novel.

The Office of Mercy has a number of similar elements to other recent types of books, most notably The Hunger Games; the will she or won’t she romantic subplots, the violence and overall setting. The novel’s execution has a bit to be desired, and as a result, it doesn’t quite have the spark that The Hunger Games has. But, it’s a darker and more complicated read, and it alternates between surprisingly interesting and unreservedly dull, but it’s a story that has real legs throughout, presenting a number of fairly traditional dystopian ideas and turning them just a bit. It’s not a rehash of the same material, but a slightly new take, which makes the book an interesting and worthwhile read.

Book Review: Fade to Black, by Francis Knight

Francis Knight does what so many fantasy authors fail to achieve: create a fantastic world in which to play.

In Fade To Black, pain-mage Rojan Dizon works in the shadows of Mahala, finding people who need to be found, trying to stay a step in front of the law. When his niece is kidnapped and taken to The Pit, Rojan must follow, where he finds that he’s going to be put up against every boundary he has.

The city of Mahala is built up, not out. Bound by mountains on either side, the Mahala is a tall metropolis that shoots into the sky, with a complex, dystopian society run by a ruling elite. Rojan makes his living in this environment, using his forbidden powers sparingly, to avoid detection from the ruling elite. Journeying to the roots of the city, Rojan is in pursuit of his niece, and comes across a world that he never expected, sealed off from the upper levels of the city. There, he encounters Pasha and Jake, a pair of outcasts who have their own agendas that coincide with Rojan’s.

Fade To Black is an engaging, but flawed read. Knight takes a closed, claustrophobic world and spins an interesting story within the walls of Mahala, populated with some solid characters and underlying themes that come together more or less as expected. The book is hard to put down throughout the first half, and while the middle slows considerably, everything flows along pretty well throughout.

The novel works well as a sort of pulp-thriller. A noir-ish detective is pulled into a mystery that grows as the character digs (or in this case, descends) deeper into their surroundings. Knight has set up Mahala as a neat metaphor for overwhelming corruption, and we see firsthand the effects of this when Rojan does go below. Starting with the disappearance of his niece, he uncovers a horrifying truth to the true nature of the city and just what the city’s rulers have allowed under their watch. Overall, while the plot is solid, Rojan and the rest of the characters feel like they’ve being snapped into a rigid framework that leads them through points A, B and C, inorganically. The result is a quite a bit of treading water through some ‘character moments’ that feel like they’re just biding time in at points. A romance between characters is forced at points, and ultimately, what slows the book down is the distraction from Rojan’s main goal: rescue his niece.

Unfortunately, Rojan feels far more out of water than he should: an archtype anti-hero right out of a ’30s detective story, it feels as though he’s further along in his character development than he should be. When he’s in his element in the upper levels of the city, he’s just fine, but as he drops lower into the underside of the city, it’s clear that he’s far more clueless than previously thought. He’s ignorant of the underworld’s entire existence, he flounders around with two companions for much of the middle of the book before going through a sort of internal dialogue about his willingness to use his powers. It’s frustrating, in many ways, because it feels very backward.

This isn’t to say that this is a bad book: far from it. At its heart, Fade To Black is a pulpy, noir-ish adventure, one that is engaging and quite a bit of fun to read. While flawed at points, Knight’s debut work is an unconventional fantasy, one that is a nice departure from the pseudo- Medieval European setting and modern day urban fantasy stories that seem to populate the bookshelves now. With two more books (Before The Fall and Last To Rise)set to be released later this year, readers won’t have long to wait before we’re treated to new adventures in Mahala.

Book Review: London Falling, by Paul Cornell


After Rob Toshack, London crime boss, dies a horrific death while being interrogated, four members of the London Metropolitan Police Service encounter something in a crime scene that gives them the Sight. Transformed, they’re now able to access an entirely new London, one that’s more dangerous than they ever thought possible.

Paul Cornell’s latest novel London Falling is a fast-paced police procedural with a twist: it’s also a clever urban fantasy novel that brings in all manner of the paranormal to policing. It’s a book that balances both genres superbly, and it’s one that’s hard to put down.

Following a sting operation, officers Quinn, Constain, Ross and Sefton find themselves with paranormal powers. An occultist version of London appears before them: they see ghosts, remnants of the past, and most importantly, a suspect that adds a new dimension onto the case on which they’ve been working. With this new power, they do the only thing that they know how to do: tackle the problem with their tools and knowledge as police officers. The team finds themselves after Mora Losley, a centuries-old witch who has a penchant for the West Ham United football club, and child sacrifices. Helping out mobsters like Toshack, she’s existed in a state of revenge for centuries, using her skills and craft for horrific evil and longevity.

Cornell, who’s worked in the comics, television and literary markets, has been named a triple threat by George R.R. Martin, and it’s easy to see why: London Falling is a deceptively easy novel to start, before he cranks up the pressure, delivering an impressive story that’s complex, emotional and quite a bit of fun to read.

Cornell’s phantom London is a fascinating place, bringing the book into such company with China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaiman’sAmerican Gods. There are deep magical roots to the city, wholly dependent upon the memories, perceptions and actions of its citizens. Ghosts patrol the sites where they lost their lives; invisible ships travel up and down the Thames, and if you get onto certain buses, you’ll end up in an entirely different world. Cornell weaves this all together in a breathtakingly fresh manner, and it’s quite a bit more interesting than most of the typical urban fantasy and high fantasy magical systems that you’ll see on bookshelves today.

As vivid and interesting as the world is, however, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its characters: Quinn, a cop with a strained home life, Ross, whose father was killed by Toshack, Costain, an undercover cop looking to run and escape, and Sefton, a closeted gay man with his own demons to battle. Apart, they’re a dysfunctional group with their own issues to sort out. The Sight gives them a collective purpose: put down Losley and end her terrible acts that have sustained her for so long. The quartet work through the problems of paranormal powers logically, figuring out the world around them, working out the tools that they can use, all before working to apprehend their suspect.

Memory, in a lot of ways, is the central focus to London Falling. The idea of a collective memory defining a central location is a strong one, and in a place such as London, with its very deep history is a place where stories can literally come alive, so long as enough people believe it’s true. It’s a neat thought, one that sets the book apart from the rest of the pack.There are points where this book is genuinely horrifying and gut wrenching. Losley sacrifices three young children, and their fates alternatively repulsed and riveted me to the book. More frightening than the immediate murders is her proclivity for messing with people’s memories. Not only do the parents of the children over her reign not know that their children have been horribly murdered, they can’t even remember having children in the first place. It’s a terrifying thought.

Cornell does an excellent job putting thought behind the power, and this is a book that gets better and better as you read it, all while blending a story that’s equal parts fantasy and detective thriller. While parts of it seem slightly odd on the surface: witches sacrificing children to punish football players, it comes together in utterly top form, and kept us at the edge of our seats right up to the last page. London Falling succeeds at this wonderfully, and already, we can’t wait for its sequel, The Severed Streets, which will be out in December in the UK.

Book Review: Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Originally published to Geek Exchange.

When a man steals a car and drives to the end of a lane, where he commits suicide, it sets off an unfathomable horror on an English family. The premise of Neil Gaiman’s first novel in five years is the basis for a subtle, intense read that may very well be his best fantasy yet.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a man revisiting his childhood home in England, following his memories down a country lane to a house that he vaguely remembered. There, he abruptly remembers his past, and the tragic events that set into motion a horrifying presence that was unleashed against the world. A man stole his family’s car and committed suicide in it. Something has been released, and our narrator comes across a strange family, the Hempstocks, who know things that they couldn’t possibly know. The youngest, Lettie, becomes the narrator’s only hope to staying alive while dangers from around and within come for him. Lettie is a strange young girl. She claims that the duck pond in her back yard is an ocean, while her grandmother claims to remember the Big Bang.

There’s an understated feeling to this short novel, a multi-layered narrative that flows smoothly as the pages turn. It’s a story about memory and stories, and I get the sense that this is a story that is a very personal one for its author. Our young narrator is a shy, bookish boy who’s afraid of the world around him, but taking comfort in his familiar surroundings.

Gaiman strips away the comfort following the upheaval of his world. The death of the Opal Miner stirs up something dark, and unwittingly, our narrator is partially responsible for the utter terror that follows him and young Lettie Hempstock when they go to investigate. There are things beyond the world that simply do not belong in ours, and it finds its way into the places where he’s the safest. There’s a visceral sense of horror that bubbles up and grows as it slowly takes over his life and surroundings, leaving him with a single safe way out. This is a fantasy of a different caliber, one that is both subtle and powerful as the narrator observes an entirely new world around him. This is a raw novel, full of emotion, one that refused to let me go until I finished it.

There’s an almost epic sense of proportions in this novel, a tragic good verses evil story fought on the tiniest level, and it succeeds in the most heartbreaking way. Gaiman is a master storyteller, one who carefully constructs his characters and makes their lives miserable for an incredible payoff for the reader.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a powerful, masterful work of fiction, one that resonates long after the last page has been turned and the book put away on the shelf. Quite simply, this short, incredible novels is one of the best of the year, and is not to be missed.