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Boundary Crossed (Boundary Magic Book 1)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

Boundary Crossed is an entry into the contemporary or urban fantasy genre from Melissa Olson.  Contemporary fantasy, unlike high fantasy, happens in today’s world.  I first got into contemporary fantasy with Jim Butcher’s Dresden files.  When that first of that series came out it felt really new and fresh.  Butcher created a wizard that lived in Chicago and advertised his profession, as a wizard, in the Yellow Pages.  He treated all cases like some film noir detective with the customary chip on his shoulder.  I loved it.  This then expanded into Kim Harrison’s Hollows world which, if I remember correctly, is based within some parallel version of Cleveland.  Felt a little derivative, but not bad.  Sadly, this turned into its own genre.  Within ten years there were druids, weather witches, elves and every other role playing archetype in damn near every city in the United States.  The big problem I have with the genre is that it has become as formulaic as a recipe for instant vanilla pudding.  Pick a city, add magic, werewolves and vampires.  Stir.  There is no world building, very little in the way of creativity and it just got lazy and boring.

Boundary Crossed introduces us to a witch living in Boulder, Colorado.  To be fair, Olson is a good writer, she develops her characters well and puts you directly into the story.  It’s the derivative content that I have a problem with.  You can imagine people sitting around, drinking, or since we are in Colorado, passing the peace pipe around, and someone says, “Duuuude, wouldn’t it be cool if you woke up one morning and found out you were a witch….”.  Everyone looks at the speaker and says, “Whoa man, that would be cool.  You just blew my mind.”  The problem is, every other damn TV show and every third fantasy novel coming out these days does the exact same thing.  Enough.  Unless you have some new creative spin to add to the genre, just stop.  The world needs less me toos and more creative content.

Olson’s slightly new addition is that our Boulder witch, Lex, is a boundary witch.  Boundary witches draw their power from death, so more necromancy than witch.  Lex is a bit of an outcast from her family in that she chose to join the army instead of go to Stanford.  While in the army, she and her unit got torn up pretty badly and in a scenario where she should have died, she beat death back and came out of it with nothing more than a couple of scars.  This is the setup for her nascent boundary witch powers.

Our heroine makes her way back home to Colorado where she is forced to deal with a significant loss in her family.  This loss puts her in a funk that has her life spiraling into a depressing, dead-end job working at the local Qwick-E mart.  Vampires, enter stage left.  The vampires end up kidnapping her little niece that is the last link to her lost family member.  This kidnapping starts Lex on her adventure into magic and mayhem.

Again, Olson is a solid writer and she builds a couple of characters that you do care about throughout the book but there is nothing new to see here.  I’m done with the series and the genre.  Contemporary fantasy has become the romance genre of the 2000s.

Promise of Blood (Powder Mage series Book 1)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

This is my first attempt at reading any McClellan and I liked it enough that I’ll give his second attempt a whirl.  He does some solid world building and definitely tries something new with magic.  Experimentation in this genre is a must with all of the candidates out there these days.  He doesn’t go too far with his experimentation though, nothing that is completely out there like a Rothfuss or a Sanderson.  This does make the world a little more identifiable though because those that build a brand new world and don’t have the literary chutzpah to pull it off almost always end up in disaster.  Again, it was good, but not groundbreaking.

The story begins with a coup.  One of our main characters has overthrown the royalty and has grand plans to build a democracy via the baby step of aristocracy.  The coup and the world we end up in seems a hell of a lot like the French revolution.  From the start, I felt like I was thrown into Les Mis, sans the musical numbers.  This did mean that we are in an age of gunpowder which is a risky proposition.  Once science and industry get to a certain level in a world, adding magic to that world is kind of like adding drama to pornography, it feels awkward, unwanted and out of place.  McClellan actually does a pretty good job of acknowledging that and goes with it anyway.

The key to making the science to magic transition kind of work is that gunpowder is actually the medium used by a new type of mage, the powder mage.  The powder mage eats or snorts some gunpowder which heightens their senses and reflexes and gives them finely controlled mental power over their ballistics.  These powder mages are in regular struggles with the Privileged, the more traditional elemental style magic wielders.  This battle is interesting primarily because it feels like a microcosm of the struggle of science and industry taking on the superstitions of a bygone era.  The other element he brings to the powder mage is that too much powder is addictive.  This is not new in magical genres, the draw of power is always addicting, but what is new is that this is the closest parallel I have seen to drugs.  You can imagine characters literally snorting this powder off of the bare asses of industrial revolution style hookers.

The other angle that he takes that really made the plot move along was by introducing a detective into the mix.  I imagined this character as a spitting image of Hercule Poirot.  Many times in fantasy novels, there is a mystery lurking that needs solving.  McClellan effectively turned this into a plot tool by creating a character that solves this mystery while riding shotgun with the reader.

Finally, I did like the grittiness of the world.  The author doesn’t pull any punches, major characters die, and he takes on real subjects like democracy and addiction.  The writing is good but I think as McClellan hones his craft, he has the opportunity to be much better.

The Skull Throne (The Demon Cycle Series Book 4)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

Every once in a while you run into a world that is so interesting that the world itself keeps you engrossed to the point that you will read anything placed in it.  This is true of Brett’s Demon Cycle series.  It requires a solid storyteller to get you so engaged but though he does a solid job of turning a phrase, that’s not what keeps you coming back.  It’s the amazing idea behind the world that is almost addicting in its ability to draw you in.  To paraphrase quickly here, all of our characters live in a world where demons rule the night.  Once the sun goes down, these demons start to materialize pretty much everywhere on the surface.  The only protection from these demons are magical wards that they cannot cross.  There is no way to harm these demons and if you are caught un-warded with them at night you’re pretty much screwed.  Our main characters spend their lives fighting against this nighttime slavery to the indoors in an effort to understand what they can do to change this fate.  Needless to say, they start to find ways to fight back and these techniques start to change these characters in fascinating ways.

This is the fourth book in the series and before this came out at the end of March I re-read the three that came before it and the short stories: Brayan’s Gold, Messenger’s Legacy, and The Great Bazaar and Other Short Stories.  I saw none of that as wasted time, that’s how compelling the idea of the world is.

Going to focus this review on the fourth book.  Like any good series, the third book ended with a cliffhanger, which was quite literal in this case.  Two of the main characters, the Warded Man and the Shar’Dama Ka face off in an epic fight to determine who will deliver the world from evil.  It doesn’t go well for one of them.  The story picks up shortly after that battle.

My biggest concern with the book is that it starts to introduce quite a few new characters.  This is always a red flag to me when the author starts to do this four books into the series.  Gives serious flashbacks to Jordan when he got muddled down with hundreds of characters that were so varied that you start to lose track of who they are or worse, why you should care about them.  Brett doesn’t go that far but it is still a little disconcerting.  There is a great cast of characters already, the new additions don’t seem to add much to the enjoyment of reading the books and they tend to just muddle the plot lines.  You can always tell when this is happening when you start confusing one character with another.  I started doing this with the fourth book and I read it on vacation pretty much straight through.

On the flip side, he takes a great turn for the better by starting to kill off some of the characters, including one of the main characters, R.R. Martin style.  This is a critical step in any great series because it shows that everything is on the table.  There are no Disney endings in this one.  Too many fantasy writers fall so in love with their main characters that you know that there is no chance that they will be killed off.  This makes the danger that they face less real and identifiable and ultimately kills a lot of good stories.  There needs to be that fear that somebody can actually die to bring real tension to a story.

My other gripe with this book was that the main story didn’t move forward much.  Our characters become more established and comfortable with their new powers but there was never that moment where they took the next big stride forward in the war.  They talked about it a lot, but it never actually came about.  This was Jordan-esque as well and just as disappointing as it was in his books.  When you read a 600+ page novel, you expect some level of a money-shot at the end.

Still very enjoyable and I will still be looking very forward to the next novel in the series but this is not his best work.

Kraken

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

I’ve never read any Mieville before but damn this dude can write!  The book starts off pretty basic, almost like a pulpy Dan Brown novel with our lead character working in the Darwin museum in London.  He gets into some of the intricacies of the life of the curator but just enough to keep you interested.  You start enjoying the main character a bit and what he is into then one of his charges, a giant dead squid, gets stolen.  Then everything goes off the fucking rails.

Once on the crazy train, you get thrown into an alternate London that reminded me a bit of Gaiman’s book, Neverwhere.  Nothing is as it seems but it is delightfully insane.  Half the time I was reading the book, I had no idea what was going on.  I’m sure there were quite a few allegories going on that went right over my head but it didn’t matter.  The plot was a complete mess but that didn’t matter either because it was so fun to read.

Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  Mieville is an artist when it comes to the English language.  I consider myself to be pretty well read with a not half bad vocabulary, but as I was reading the book on my kindle I found myself looking up words every page.  The funny thing was that half of these words didn’t have a definition.  That’s where the breaking of rules comes from.  Mieville has such a handle on the language that he simply makes words up when an appropriate one can’t be found to describe the batshit crazy that is happening in his story.  Words like hereseopoly, which I took to mean as the organized gathering of heretical groups.  These things just flow naturally off the page to the point that you stop looking stuff up and just roll with it.  Here’s one other example of the brilliance of his writing, “They had sent their alarums in parachemicals, waves of pathogen anxiety.  They stimulated immune response in the factory grounds.  Birthing of brick angles; emerging from hollows in boscage; unwinding from the ruined car; London’s leucocytes came on in attack.”  There are passages like this on every page.

Two of the best characters in the book were Goss and Subby, the demonic duo that chases young Billy Harrow throughout the streets of London.  These guys were very similar villains to Gaiman’s Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar in that they were effortlessly evil and seem to revel in their insidiousness.  It’s that joy of evil that seems to make the best villains almost comedic, kind of the Dr. Evils of alternate London but not quite so on-the-nose.

It was very obvious to me in reading the book that Mieville was having a blast writing it.  That joy comes across in waves.  Grab your board and let yourself be taken by them into the deeps.  Kraken is worth the ride.

Trysmoon Book 4: Sacrifice (The Trysmoon Saga)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

I did a previous review on the first book of this series and have waited until completing the last to do a final review.  I was incredibly impressed with the first book.  One of my big concerns in the first review was how powerful the primary protagonist, Gen, became and the heights he achieved early in the series.  This often becomes a big barrier to keeping the story interesting as the plot progress.  Fuller answered that challenge nicely by continuously throwing our hero under the bus both in matters of destiny and matters of the heart.

Any good series like this is always built first on the solid foundation of character development by using the relationships these characters have with each other.  This saga was rich with these.  One of the more interesting relationships was the love triangle between Gen, the Chalaine and the Chalaine’s mother, Mirelle.  This was something right out of any college kid’s fantasy.  Mirelle makes no excuses for trying to Mrs. Robinson her way into Gen’s pants.  She is obviously one of the hottest milfs out there so, really, she provides an ethical dilemma that only one of Gen’s character and dedication can manage to navigate through without giving up his own ethical compass.  This achievement is made even more extraordinary when you consider that the Chalaine is not giving up the goods in the first place.  This borders a little on the unbelievable until you make the conscious decision to just roll with it and accept it as part of the fantasy.

The relationship with the Chertanne is also an enjoyable one.  The Chertanne is the character that is supposed to be the savior and focus of the prophesy that bails mankind out of the upcoming apocalyptically bad time floating just over the horizon.  You learn, even in the first book, that he is nothing but an entitled little prick.  The slightly unbelievable thing about this character is his inability to evolve into someone with even one iota of likability. This is true even after he gets sent, quite literally, to hell.  The interesting thing about the relationship between Gen and the Chertanne is that Gen does a wonderful job of turning almost everyone with a shred of common sense against the personality failures of the Chertanne simply by being the polar opposite in both deed and word.  This is incredibly satisfying but a little naively idealistic when one considers the current breed of politician we are forced to stomach in our real world that thrive in a system that doesn’t seem to be able to hold any of these entitled pricks accountable.  I guess that’s why we read this type of fiction in the first place.

There are misses on the relationship side as well though.  I think the biggest miss is the relationship between Gen and his former mentor/tormentor the Shadan, Torbrand.  The Shadan is the ruthless lunatic that gave Gen his training and resistance to pain by keeping the threat of his friends lives over his head as he treated him like a practice dummy.  However, when the odds are against both of these gentlemen in a desperate last stand, they act like BFFs once removed without any of the former antagonism that should rightly exist.  I know Gen is the forgiving type, but come on.  There are other misses along the way too like the Dason relationship and the non factor that Gen’s former flame becomes as the book progresses but none of these are significant enough to make the story un-enjoyable.

The plot charges forward nicely throughout the entire series with only a couple of lulls where it looks like Fuller is looking for something for the characters to do.  But again, these aren’t enough of a slowdown to keep you moving with the characters.  The twists that Fuller continues to add to the prophetic paradigm as he twists the prophecy into something much more dynamic are well worth the read.  This makes the too simple good vs. evil dynamic much more interesting.  The closing chapters are also satisfying as the Fuller wraps up the closing lines of the prophecy as well as turning the love triangle into more of a straight line.

All in all, a good series well worth the time investment.

Of Shadow & Sea (The Elder Empire: First Shadow)

This is really just a continuation of the previous review.  Of Shadow & Sea is the sister novel to of Sea & Shadow and it’s very obvious that Will Wight shines much brighter when he’s in the dark.  Just like in the Traveler’s Gate trilogy, the dark characters in this novel are much more interesting.  Calder Marten has his moments as the lovable rogue but you never see the complexity experienced by those that grow up in Shadow.  The back stories are more interesting, the subplots are more engrossing and the interplay between the characters seems more genuine and feels like there is more at stake for each of them.

Granted, this may all be because I was already introduced to the world by the sister novel and so didn’t have to multitask between understanding new concepts while gradually getting to know the characters.  But I don’t think that’s it.  I think that Wight likes these characters more because they are counter culture and the life of an assassin clearly floats his boat more than, well, an intrepid seaman.

Our main character in the book is Shera.  Shera never had an easy life.  We are introduced to her as a young street thug.  On the streets, she is the ultimate survivor in that ruthless killing doesn’t seem to phase her one bit.  I spent much of the novel wondering if her complete lack of empathy was a survival mechanism or some form of autism or flat out psychopathy.  One of her less endearing characteristics is that she can and will fall asleep at any opportunity.  I found this a little annoying at first but as the book evolved, I believe that this constant semi-narcolepsy was really her escape mechanism.

While the author does not dive too deeply in to the messed up psychology of a trained killer, he also doesn’t shy away from it.  We often find ourselves right there with Shera as she is asking herself ‘why don’t I feel bad about doing these terrible things?’.  These are the right questions, the hard questions that bring about a true connection with the reader.  None of these emotions are resolved in the first book and near the end there is obvious foreshadowing that the complexity of these interactions is just going to grow.  That’s a good thing.

Shera’s supporting cast is much better developed than Calder’s.  I care much more about what happens to Meia and Lucan than I ever did about Calder’s crew.  Calder’s crew were more photographic archetypes, who looked like they had depth at a distance but we never got the pleasure to cross the velvet line and look at em up close to see the cracks and blemishes that make art all the more interesting.  Meia and Lucan were also deeply flawed characters and I mean that in the most complementary way.  Flaws open the door for conflict and all good books need conflict to keep you engaged.  That’s part of the reason why the interplay between this threesome is interesting and natural.

I also got the pleasure of knowing what was going to happen at the end of the novel but experiencing it from a different viewpoint.  This is risky because if the reader knows what is going to happen at the end, you may lose them early.  The risk pays off though because you get to understand how perspective makes all the difference in any story.  Whether in real life or fiction, perspective makes the same story feel totally new.

Looking forward to the next books.

Of Sea & Shadow (The Elder Empire: Sea Book 1)

 

I first encountered Will Wight’s work in his City of Light series.  In that series I was blown away by how he completely changed the dynamic of yet another young hero that needs to fulfill a prophecy.  He decided to instead focus not on the hero of the prophecy but one of his lesser known friends who turned out to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the two dimensional ‘hero’.  In Of Sea & Shadow, Wight continues to experiment.  He released two books at the same time Of Sea & Shadow and its companion Of Shadow & Sea.  He warns that these two books tell essentially the same story but from a different character’s point of view.  This reminds me of Card’s novel Shadow of the Hegemon which retold the Ender’s Game story from Bean’s point of view.  Sounded boring at first blush but turned out to be brilliant.

I’ve only just begun the companion novel, Of Shadow & Sea,  so this review will focus solely on the lighter side.  Wight respects the intelligence of the reader by asking a lot from them.  His world building tosses the reader right into the mix without introducing any of the terms or concepts that are meant to be commonplace in the prose and then slowly filling these terms in as the plot progresses.  This has always been an enjoyable way to ease into a new world, almost like learning a new science or programming language.  Some elements you have to take on faith early on that you will understand later as you gain more experience in the world.

This one has a little extra challenge associated with it due to the grand experiment Will Wight has taken on.    The extra challenge is that you know that you are not going to get any of the extra tidbits until you start reading the companion novel.  Just reading one of the books is almost like doing a Sudoku puzzle without using any 4s or 7s.  You know that there are going to be gaps but is it still enjoyable?

Luckily, it is.  Wight always does a great job of characterization, you end up really caring about what happens to his characters, and when you’re done you feel like these folks could have been a part of your past.  I did struggle a little bit more with these characters than with previous novels due to some of the gaps but I found myself looking forward to seeing how they would be filled in deeper in the next novel.  I also had a good time guessing who would be the main character in the next novel.

On to the plot.  The novel introduces you quickly to the swashbuckling protagonist, Calder Marten.  Calder is the captain of a large ship with a very small crew.  The reason for the small crew is that Calder is a Reader that is intimately linked to his ship.  The ship is an extension of his mind and he can control sails and rigging like just another appendage. Wasn’t super clear on how the crew sailed the ship when he was sleeping but little details like that don’t take away from the enjoyment of the book.

The world is run by Guilds that each have some level of mystical prowess.  Calder is part of the Navigator’s guild but he was raised as part of the Blackwatch.  The Blackwatch monitor Elder activity.  The Elders are the supernatural beings that populate the depths of the world.  You don’t want to run into these guys on a vacation because you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a bad time.  The world itself is an Empire run by an Emperor who has recently passed on.  The ambient power struggles that Calder finds himself in are around the Guilds trying to decide who should take on the burden of leadership left by the void of the recently deceased Emperor.

Calder takes on a couple of passengers that belong to the Watchers guild against the warnings of his first mate.  These passengers end up being somewhat dickish both in personality and in the fact that they are assassination targets of the Consultants.  The Consultants are a deadly Guild with a shit list.  Calder’s passengers are on it.

Most of the novel is around understanding the motivation behind these passengers as they move from one threat to the next.  Throughout each of these threats we get regular flashbacks to Calder growing up.  This is where most of the world building happens.

Overall, it was thoroughly entertaining and as I’m now about a third of the way through it’s companion novel, I’m really enjoying watching yin slowly fit into yang.  Should be a good series.

Trysmoon Book 1: Ascension (The Trysmoon Saga)

Wow.  I have never read anything from Fuller before but he knows how to spin a story.  The first novel is somewhat formulaic but he fills in all the variables of the formula brilliantly.  You know the one: boy from small woodcutting village has something traumatic happen to him that puts him in the cross-hairs of glory.  He goes through a training montage that is followed by his first opportunity to prove his training in a very public way.  This leads to a career that narrows the glory target to the center of the forehead.  Oh yeah, and there’s a prophecy out there that involves him indirectly at first but more directly as we progress.

The formula is not very new but there is a reason why this formula is used in the first place.  It let’s the reader grow with the protagonist in the way that makes you think ‘yeah, I would have done it that way’ and let’s you live in another’s boots for a while.

The nice thing about Fuller’s adaptation of the formula is that he turns it gritty and painful right out of the gate.  This seems to be the trend of good fantasy these days.  This was made popular by George R.R. Martin way back in the Game of Thrones days well before HBO took it to non fantasy nerds.  It’s a good trend.  No major character is invincible from the the author’s ability to make a point.  Fuller wields the butcher’s pen well in the first book of Ascension.

The only way characters grow in any novel is when they are faced with real pain.  The main character Gen gets massive doses of it as soon as the starting whistle is blown.  This pain molds him into a weapon.  Thanks to his pre-weapon days as a bard, our young hero values intelligence over brawn.  This background, coupled with some mystical training turns Gen into a force to reckon with.

You get to experience that reckoning in a public contest of arms when Gen gets to compete for the right to join the Dark Guard.  The Dark Guard protect the major players of the prophecy, who are meant to save mankind from the apocalypse on the horizon. In the contest Gen kicks the crap out of the competition even though the odds seemed stacked against him.  This lands him a spot close to the prophecy and all the intrigue that comes with it.

I’m looking forward to continuing the series.  My only concern at this point is that the main character gets too one-dimensional.  Gen grows so quickly in the first book that there is a risk that he will have nothing else to grow into.  That always leads to disaster – can’t wait to see how Fuller handles it.

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