Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Book Review: VERY IMPORTANT CORPSES by Simon R. Green

Title: Very Important Corpses

Author: Simon R. Green

Publisher: Severn House

Original Publishing Date: March 1, 2017

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟1/2

There are times when I just want to read something that is not too complicated or involved. I found myself in that situation after reading and reviewing a few heavy books recently. With that in mind, I took to NetGalley to find a title that had the potential to be fun, light, and just pure escapism without my having to remember 50 characters’ names and houses. I stumbled across Very Important Corpses by Simon R. Green because of the cover mostly. Yes, they say never judge a book by its cover, but this one drew me in for some reason and made me want to read the synopsis. Simon R. Green is traditionally a fantasy/sci-fi author and I had heard of his work before but had never read anything by him. Quickly skimming the synopsis of the book, I saw that it was a supernatural mystery of sorts that took place in Scotland and also involved Loch Ness. I’m a sucker for anything to do with the Loch Ness monster so Mr. Green, you had me at Nessie! I guess you could say there is a degree of ridiculousness to that but there’s a part of me that really enjoys ridiculousness and I won’t apologize for it. In short, if I was looking for something that was solely pure escapism, this passed the test for me as far as the premise went anyway.
As soon as I received the advance reading copy from the publisher, I eagerly immersed myself in the story. Essentially the story is a mystery, but there are so many supernatural aspects to it that it can also be considered a dark fantasy or even horror to a certain degree. Ishmael Jones is an agent who works for a shadowy black ops organization known strangely enough as “The Organization”. Oh, and that’s not all. Did I tell you that Ishmael is an alien? Yes you heard me correctly; he’s an alien and the only survivor of his alien starship crash-landing in southwest England in the year 1963. Did I mention something about being attracted to ridiculousness earlier? But as I said, this is exactly what I was in the mood for and so I kept on reading. As I turned the pages, the story began to take shape and I settled in for what quickly become a very entertaining yarn. Ishmael is charged by his boss, known only as The Colonel, with investigating the murder of one of the Organization’s operatives. The operative was found dead in her room at the historic Coronach House on the shores of Loch Ness while performing security duties protecting the Baphamet Group. The Baphamet Group is a collection of the 12 most influential people in the world who meet annually in such secrecy that their names are only known by the months of the year. The most senior member being December, next senior being November, and so on. What is discussed at these meetings is unknown, but it has been surmised that the Baphamet Group controls and influences the world economy as well as the governments of many countries. Not only has an operative of The Organization been murdered, but it is also revealed that one of the members of the Baphamet Group may have also been taken out and replaced with an imposter for some devious reason. Ishmael embarks on his mission to Coronach House with his partner Penny to attempt to hopefully uncover the dual dead-body mystery. As soon as he arrives; however, it is obvious that not only do the staff at Coronach House not want him there, but the Baphamet Group as well. Good thing that Ishmael doesn’t take no for an answer. Think of Ishmael as Harry Dresden with more cockiness and you’ve pretty much encapsulated his personality. It becomes clear very early on in the book that someone is hiding an extremely important secret from Ishmael and that the murdered operative may have stumbled across a revelation that necessitated her being eliminated before she could speak to anyone about it. The question is, was it a member of the Baphamet Group or one of the many staff members at Coronach House? Couple all of this with a side-story about the Loch Ness Monster and a few other local monster legends, and you’ve got a multidimensional supernatural mystery that delivers on a number of levels.
I really liked Very Important Corpses. It kept me thoroughly entertained for a few nights before bed and I would classify this book as a perfect night time read. It was exactly the kind of book that I wanted to read to scratch my particular itch, so to speak. At just over 200 pages, it was also a relatively quick read. That’s not to say I liked everything about it. I did have some minor quibbles. For one, I thought the main character Ishmael Jones tended to be a bit over-the-top at times. I got a little weary of him constantly getting what he wanted too easily and bullying everybody into submission. I understand that this was probably by design, but it still grated on me after a while. Also, the characters weren’t fleshed out that much which I thought made them a bit two dimensional at times. That being said, neither of these things made me want to put the book down and I was able to set it aside as I approached the final reveal. And what a reveal it was! In the end, I was left very satisfied and this will definitely not be the last Simon R. Green book that I read. I am interested to check out some of his other works because I really do enjoy the way he delivers a story. Bottom line: I recommend Very Important Corpses if you are looking for a fun, scary, and entertaining read before bedtime. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Book Review: SOUL OF THE WORLD by David Mealing

Title: Soul of the World

Author: David Mealing

Publisher: Orbit

Original Publishing Date: June 27, 2017

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

David Mealing is a fairly new author on the fantasy scene.  Despite that, I had been hearing a significant amount of buzz regarding the first book of his Ascension Cycle, Soul of the World.  People who I respect a lot in the review community have been giving the book stellar reviews, so I was excited to check it out for myself.  Another added bonus for me is that this is quite a hefty book, which I am a big fan of.  The more pages the better in my opinion, as I really enjoy getting immersed in a lengthy story that has many layers.  So with all of that going for it, I happily settled down and prepared myself for the journey into this wondrous new world.

The setting of Soul of the World is very reminiscent of 18th century France and England but with magic heavily ingrained in daily life. Shades of the French Revolution are also present in tone and theme. In this alternate fantasy telling, Sarresant represents the would-be France and Gand represents England.  Just as in the 18th century real world historical scenario, these two nations are at war and engaging in a bitter conflict.  The story begins as the invaders from Gand in the south are attempting to gain a foothold and conquer territory along the Sarresant border.  Couple that with the fact that in the northern part of the continent, there lives a primitive people very similar to the Native Americans of the early American colonies.  These primitive tribes are held in confinement by a magical barrier that does not allow them to interact with the colonized lands to the south.  So in essence, Sarresant is sandwiched by two threats that they must face from both the north and south. then there's the magic system which is somewhat unique.  The magic of the colonists are tied to ley linesthat can allow someone who is gifted in the art to channel power and manifest it in a number of different ways.  Those who possess the power to control the ley lines can often see across great distances, make themselves invisible, and read people's minds.  The beasts that inhabit the region where the story takes place are also magical in nature.  Take for instance, the creature who accompanies one of the main characters in the story Sarine.  This creature, named Zi,  is akin to a daemon who acts as a spirit guide of sorts that serves to enhance Sarine's ability to manipulate the ley lines in any way she chooses.  Sarine is an orphan who has been thrown in the middle of the war and is observing the growing tensions arising as Sarresant prepares for the inevitable conflict.  There are pother POV characters who also bring you the view of the story from the military side of things like the ambitious Erris D'Arrent.  Erris is also trained in ley line magic and this will come in handy as the situation on the front lines worsen.  The chapters alternate between life on the streets, told through the eyes of Sarine, and the military campaign and action, communicated through Erris.  Erris also has her own inner conflict to contend with of being a devoted military tactician who can't help but question whether she has been put in a no-win situation where defeat may be almost a certainty.  However, she realizes that those who she leads look up to her and so she must put on a brave face for both they and New Sarresant, her home. The alternating viewpoints give an effective description of how things are perceived in two very different aspects of life.  

Soul of the World was a very enjoyable fantasy read.  There were some similarities to both Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series as well as Greg Keyes' Age of Unreason series, which only increased my enjoyment of this book seeing as both of those are favorites of mine.  The thing that really stood out to me while reading this book was how ell-crafted the world was and how David Mealing took a specific point in world history and successfully adapted it to a very original story of his own.  Although many of the parties are easily identifiable from our own history, there are subtle differences as well that throw everything a bit off kilter and make this story very fresh.  It's interesting to feel that way because there were times where I thought things were going to go down a certain road of predictability, but was pleased when something I didn't see coming happened instead.  I can't emphasize enough how good a book this is by a new author.  I was extremely impressed by the level of the writing and had to remind myself at times that yes, this is a debut novel.  I loved so many things about this book, including the varying viewpoint chapters, which I thought really brought a wonderful balance of interpretation.  I'm not exactly sure why this series isn't as raved about as I believe it should be.  Perhaps with the next installment Blood of the Gods coming out this summer, it will finally garner the notoriety it deserves.  If you haven't read this book, you need to grab a copy now.  I highly recommend it for anyone who is waiting for the next Martin and Rothfuss book to be released.  It is just the deliciously filling snack that you need to make you feel satisfied should you find yourself in the aforementioned position.  Truly a wonderful read and I look forward to the next one with great anticipation.

Book Review: JOURNEY TO THE BLACK CITY by Keith Mueller

Title: Journey to the Black City

Author: Keith Mueller

Publisher: Waldorf Publishing

Original Publishing Date: October 1, 2016

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟

On a far-future earth, the population of the world has been divided into various free tribes and city-states in and around the area of what would now be considered the Pacific Northwest and California. Those who inhabit these areas are the survivors of a great cataclysm which occurred two thousand years earlier when huge glaciers began encroaching and grinding on the northern continents. This encroachment sent those in its path searching for habitable regions where they could survive and not be subject to freezing temperatures and starvation. Another result of this glacial advancement southward was a catastrophic war which broke out between the great nation across the western sea called The Unified Tribes of the Black Cross and that of North America called The Unified Tribes of the White Star. The warriors of the nation from across the sea brought with them more than warfare however, and a violent strain of influenza quickly broke out, eradicating almost the entire population of the world. Two thousand years later, the few who survived that hideous time have repopulated the west coast of America, living in vast city-states, megalopolises, and the surrounding wilderness. Not only do the free tribes have to contend with other aggressive warrior clans, but they are also living in the midst of such deadly predators as saber toothed cats, mammoths, and dire wolves. It is almost as if a new ice age has imposed itself over the world again. Located in the southern part of what once was the nation state of California, is the one remaining semblance of civilization called the Black City. At one time the great city of Los Angeles, The Black City has now been thrown back into gaslight technology where zeppelins are the preferred mode of mass-transportation and steam power rules. The long ago buildings are crumbling and a mysterious cathedral sits at the heart of this decrepit megalopolis. When the shadowy priesthood which inhabits the cathedral begins to kidnap the magical shaman of many of the free tribes located in the surrounding wilderness, they begin to hint at a sinister plan which may ultimately lead to another colossal battle between good and evil.  To uncover the secretive motivations of the priesthood and hopefully rescue their captured shaman, Kel and Lyria, two members of a prominent tribe, embark on a clandestine journey to penetrate the cathedral and put a stop to a potential reoccurrence of the great war that devastated humanity two millennia before.
Thus begins the post-apocalyptic fantasy Journey to the Black City. Author Keith Mueller is a student of metaphysical studies, shamanism, as well as ancient religions. After reading his first full-length novel I have to say that it definitely shows. His knowledge in these areas comes through so vividly in his writing. I enjoyed the idea of a future civilization having been devastated by an ancient cataclysm and the mystery surrounding that. The strong parts of the book for me were the inherent mystery and the magic system. I thought that the author did a good job of creating a magic system that involved the use of dream-walking. I’m assuming that his interest in shamanism had a lot to do with this and it worked extremely well for me. Each character being able to project their magic through a different animal was reminiscent of the patronus in Harry Potter, but Mueller handled them slightly differently, so that wasn’t really an issue for me. The bishops and priests living in the Black City were well done and sufficiently evil, if not in some cases a bit too evil. If I could compare the feel of this book to another series, I would say that it bears a thematic resemblance to David Weber’s Safehold series (which I am a huge fan of). The idea of a shadowy priesthood trying to subjugate the populace is very similar to Weber’s work. I was very impressed by Mueller’s ability to keep the mystery going throughout the entire book. Many authors either reveal things too quickly, or the mystery is much too predictable. Make no mistake, the mystery of the different factions of The Unified Tribes of the White Star and the Unified Tribes of the Black Cross are the center of the story. As a reader, I couldn’t help but get caught up in exactly what took place between those warring nations thousands of years ago and what the ramifications would be for the people living in the present. If I have one criticism, I would say that I thought there wasn’t enough emphasis put on describing the Black City itself. There were times when the author started to reveal and describe certain parts of the city in detail, but then quickly diverted into another viewpoint character’s story. I also found the romantic relationship between Kel and Lyria to be a little lacking in believability. Seeing as how they were the two main characters of the story, I thought more time should have been devoted to making their relationship more front and center.  I really wasn’t as invested in them as I could have been which made me not especially care when they were put in a dangerous situation. Despite that, I enjoyed Journey to the Black City a good deal. It is definitely a fun read and I found myself turning the pages quickly. I wouldn’t put it on the level of the really great post-apocalyptic books in the genre, but I also wouldn’t say that it isn’t worth picking up and reading. I look forward to reading more books by Keith Mueller. If Journey to the Black City is any indication, I think that he has some room to grow and should create some really high-quality books in the future.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Review: SEVENTH DECIMATE by Stephen R. Donaldson

Title: Seventh Decimate

Author: Stephen R. Donaldson

Publisher: Berkley

Original Publishing Date: November 14,2017

My Rating: 🌟🌟

When you talk about authors in the fantasy genre who are widely regarded as ground breakers who step outside of the usual fantasy tropes and template, Stephen R. Donaldson is definitely one of those authors.  You can argue whether or not his books have too much violence, rape, or crass language, but what you cannot argue with is that Donaldson has written some extremely impactful series and has established himself as one of the most well-known names in fantasy.  Personally, I didn't very much care for his Thomas Covenant books but I enjoyed his Mordant's Need duology a great deal and to this day it is one of my favorite portal fantasies ever. I received a review copy of the first book in his new series Seventh Decimate a while back but wasn't able to get to it until just recently.  I was interested in reading it though because Donaldson has elicited such different reading experiences for me and I wanted to see if this book would make me feel the same way I felt about Mordant's Need.  Unfortunately, this one brought me back to the dislike I felt with his original series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, albeit in a much different way.

Seventh Decimate tells the story of two warring realms Belleger and Amika, that use sorcery as their main weapons of choice.  The shapes that the sorcery takes are called decimates and they parallel various elements of earth and natural disasters such as wind, fire, drought earthquake, etc...  However, there has been foretold that a seventh decimate exists that can undo all of the other forms of sorcery or decimates.  Because of this, Prince Bifalt, the prince of Belleger makes it his mission to embark on a quest to travel to a mysterious library that supposedly contains the secret to the Seventh Decimate.  No one knows whether the library even exists but Prince Bifalt would like to wipe sorcery clean of his land and the only way he believes he can accomplish this is by finding the library to utilize the Seventh Decimate.  Once this is done, he can vanquish his nation's enemies and restore his Belleger as the proper dynasty that he views it to be.  The only things that stand in the way of him achieving this goal is a treacherous journey through unforgiving conditions and violent war bands that raid the land that he must cross to get there.  His urgency is also exacerbated by the fact that Amika has found a way to produce rifles and will most certainly incorporate them into their war with Belleger.  Will Prince Bifalt find the Seventh Decimate before his realm can be invaded and conquered by an Amikan army equipped with both firearms and sorcery?  Does the library or the Seventh Decimate actually exist or are they simply rumor passed down from one generation to another?  Did I really care by the end of the book?  Sadly, I did not and here's why.

First let me say that I loved the premise of this book.  I thought the idea of different decimates or sorcery that take the shape of earth elements and natural disasters were pretty cool.  It wasn't until I started reading that I realized this wasn't going to be a book that I would enjoy.  Part of the reason why Stephen Donaldson is popular is his willingness to break from the standard "Lord of the Rings" type of fantasy.  The big problem with this book is it is full of the same tropes that Donaldson has avoided for so much of his career.  The quest, the two warring nations, the overly-ambitious prince greedy for power, it felt like I was reading a mish-mosh of every standard fantasy I have ever come across in my life.  It was so generic and just felt wrong for a Donaldson book.  The world-building was pretty non-existent as well and the characters were simply never fleshed-out enough for me to care about the events that unfolded.  Seventh Decimate is also a short book in comparison to the tomes that Donaldson normally churns out.  This could have contributed to the rushed feel of the book.  I know that there are other books that will be coming out in this series but this one didn't really make me pine to want to continue with future installments.  It was a fairly sad effort that I am puzzled by since Donaldson doesn't normally do things half-heartedly.  Yet that is the way I felt when I finally closed the book.  To say that I was disappointed would be a proper representation of my feelings.  Maybe others will find something to like about this book, but I was struggling to pick out the positives.  In the end, it didn't move me at all and I thought it was stale and uninspiring from an author who can do much much better than this.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Book Review: THE LONG SUNSET by Jack McDevitt

Title: The Long Sunset

Author: Jack McDevitt

Publisher: Saga

Original Publishing Date: April 17, 2018

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Jack McDevitt is a veteran author of Science-Fiction who to date has penned over 20 novels, most of which encompass two long series - The Academy series starring Priscilla Hutchins and the Alex Benedict series starring well, Alex Benedict.  To be truthful, I'm much more of a fan of the former rather than the latter, so when I was given the opportunity to receive an advanced reader copy for his newest Academy book The Long Sunset, I jumped at the chance.  The Academy is a series that I have been reading for the past 15 years.  The gist of the series is that we are may not be alone in the universe and The Academy is specifically designed to discover concrete evidence to confirm or deny the existence of an alien culture or intelligence living in deep space.  In the first book of the series, The Engines of God, monuments are found on various planets that were believed to be constructed by an alien race that may or may not be extinct.  So if you like, archaeological thrillers that are based on other planets, then this is a series that you should pick up and start reading immediately.  That being said, it's time to let you know what I thought about The Long Sunset.

The Long Sunset follows much of the same formula that has made this series a success, The Academy finds some sort of radio signal in space, they send Priscilla Hutchins to the approximate location to see what it is, lots of fun stuff happens from there.  It literally is the same formula that has carried these books since the late 90's and yet, it works.  To a certain degree it works, I should say.  I must admit that even though this felt like another enjoyable and comfortable Jack McDevitt read, I also felt like McDevitt's writing is just not as top-notch as it once was.  There were times when the dialogue felt a bit stilted and forced.  These times especially made their appearance when Priscilla was engaging in a romantic scene with her significant other.  I don't know if it is because Jack is getting up there in years and is a little out of touch with the way thirty-something people who are attracted to each other speak now, but I suspect that might be some of it.  It seemed that I had more eye-rolling moments in this book than with any previous ones by Jack McDevitt.  Once you get past that, the actual adventure and mystery of the space signal is done pretty well.  Jack knows what works in this area and he really excels at building up the mystery before the reveal at the end.  This particular time, a radio signal that appears to be a musical arrangement is detected by the Academy somewhere in a distant star system and Priscilla Hutchins must pilot a spacecraft to attempt to determine the source of the transmission.  Once there, Priscilla stumbles upon the usual planets with traces of what could only be determined to be dwellings or structures, yet appear to now be abandoned.  Who are they?  Will they show up again?  Were they wiped out?  Is it the same civilization that constructed the monuments from book one in the series?  Will any of these questions ever finally be put to bed in now this 8th Academy entry?  You can only find out if you read The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt.

My feelings about the Long Sunset are disparate.  First, the story is the usual very good one filled with all of the classic science-fiction elements that make Jack McDevitt an entertaining writer and storyteller.  There are moments of awkwardness with the dialogue as I mentioned, but these aren't too distracting.  They just indicate that maybe Jack needs to stop trying to write romantic scenes or characters who are in a relationship.  The second contrary feeling I had from this book though, and one that I am a bit sad about, is that this series may have run its course.  I enjoyed it yes, but I just couldn't help feeling that the bite wasn't there and by the end I was simply satisfied rather than being blown away like I usually am with a Jack McDevitt story.  I still thought it was a decent-enough read, but it lost a couple of points for me just because the formula might be getting a little stale at this point.  Maybe The Long Sunset is an apt title since this does seem to be a series in need of some closure.  I do recommend reading it, but I would start with book 1 and read them in order from the beginning to get the full experience.