Thursday, January 23, 2014

SteelHeart (Reckoners # 1) by Brandon Sanderson: Not your traditional SuperHero novel.

So Mr.Sanderson can write a twisty fun-filled rocket-propelled urban fantasy with a young male protagonist who is hell bent on avenging his father's death.
Am I surprised? No.
Am I blown away? Ahem. not quite.
Did I like it? I loved it.

With SteelHeart - Sanderson's unique take on Superheroes, Post Apocalytic fiction and urban fantasy - he still proves he can write a racy entertaining tale as good as anyone out there. But at the end of a frenetic reading experience, this still seems like a summer internship project for Mr.Talented. Something he would write between the larger tomes he labours on. Remember those read for pleasure stories in our school? Well, this must have been his "write for pleasure" project that just took wings and blazed a new trail in the much starved urban fantasy sub-genre.

With this novel, Brandon in his own uniquely original inimitable style takes on an age-old question on superheroes and their super-powers. For when we were kids growing up on Eastman colour comics of men in their spandex tights, useless masks and flowing capes, we used to ask each other – what if we have a super-power? Invisibility? Ability to fly? An endless supply of Peanut Butter and Strawberry Jelly-Jam? According to Brandon, we become Epics. Meta-humans with super-powers extra-ordinaire. There is only one lesson for those gifted with a sense of the “meta” wishing to see any message buried beneath the lines: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Period.

The story reads like a YA-post apocalyptic fiction chiefly because of the young protagonist, barely breaking through his teens and the wonderfully inventive world setting. Sometime in the future of mankind, a “Calamity” has occurred. It’s a celestial event – like a red star that popped into the sky and bestowed strange powers on people at random. Powers that convert these men into Epics and let them go absolutely pscyho on power-trips making them tyrants. In one of the best prologues written (And I repeat: No one…NO ONE writes a prologue like Brandon does. If anyone wants to challenge me on that, then come out. Let’s settle it once and for all, huh!) Brandon introduces us to young David: Stuck inside a bank and forced to helplessly watch as his father gets gunned down by an up and coming Epic called SteelHeart – who goes on to convert Chicago into a steel city bereft of sunlight and with steel tunnels everywhere – coining the term Newcago and who rules this city like a tight-fisted tyrant. But David has a secret: he is the only survivor to have seen SteelHeart bleed. And he vows to make him bleed again. Nursing this ambition for close to ten years, David grows up to a bitter young man with revenge on his heart and brains, choosing to join a shadowy group called Reckoners: Whose only aim is to kill Epics. The story follows David as he joins hands and plots the downfall of one of the most powerful Epics in the world.

It's at best a mediocre effort from someone as talented as Sanderson – I felt perhaps he was sleep-typing or sleep-writing the whole book-  it feels clunky at times and less polished than his usual outings. But regardless. the best thing about the book is the entertainment factor. Relentless action that is fast and furious and hits you chapter after chapter. Right from the first chapter when David is running through underground tunnels to get to a rendezvous point to watch the Reckoners execute an Epic, the headlong pace never lets up.  You just dive straight in and let yourself be flown along.

But take a moment to dig a bit deeper : This ain’t a straight forward revenge story. Clever bits and pieces of info-dump introduces a futuristic world, bleak and grey after the Epics have taken over the humanity. In terms of the characterization, it is vintage Sanderson: with a solid cast of characters: the team of reckoners that David befriends, each with a quirk of their own. But at times, it does feel a bit shallow. While a clever writing device was the use of metaphors – most of them strained and funnily inappropriate as spoken by the central characters who claim to be “bad at the use of analogies” – the humour felt a little dry and forced at times. Another usual Sanderson-technique is the magic: but with a plot that is racing headlong to a dynamite fused climax, Sanderson takes his liberty to keep the readers in the dark: especially on the origin of the “calamity” and the source of such awesome super powers. But trust me, it shouldn’t really deter the reading experience that is pure fun and energetic. Perhaps things will be explained better in book two? With a rousing finale to end book one and things poised for more interesting themes to emerge, I cannot wait for it.

But as things stand now, this is a 3-star book. Enjoyable fare, a super-fast read, a layered book that pokes fun at the superhero & post-apocalyptic genre. Bring on the words of radiance, I say. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Remaining:Just another Zombie Lit, just exceptionally well done.

The Remaining is a digital publishing sensation – another one of those run away hits on the internet propelling DJ Molles to be the poster-child of self-publishing. And it’s built up for a good reason: this book while still expounding on the well-trodden path of a zombie novel, still retains that sense of creeping horror and urgency characteristic of a well written and well researched novel. You’ve dozens of books on the post-apocalyptic theme where the world is over-run by infected diseased beings – more than a good share having executed this theme pretty well. So what makes The Remaining an internet phenomenon and now has got snapped up by the biggies as well being commissioned for a movie? 

I haven’t cracked that question yet. But what I got when I read the book was a crackerjack of a zombie novel that never lets up on the pacing and action till the end and is a compelling read indeed. It’s a plot we’ve seen before – Captain Lee Hardin is sequestered within an underground bunker – well trained and stocked up with supplies to last through a cataclysm should one befall the world. And it does – much to the disbelief of the captain where more than 90% of the world population falls prey to a “bacterial” infection – which the FEMA/Scientists have termed as “FURY” ( that expands to a mouthful of science jargon that we ain’t really concerned about) – a disease that worms and eats through a human brain leaving him or her as less than human with only basic motor senses and a vapid sense of mad hunger for flesh. With the US Government now dysfunctional, it is Lee’s mission to locate survivors as the sole representative of governmental authority and to provide them with the supplies to survive and thrive again. Thirty days after the outbreak, Lee waits for his “coordinator’s” message to get back up on terra firma and start going about his mission. And from the first encounter with an infected, a young fifteen year old girl with a knife and astonishingly fast motor responses, Lee’s mission starts off going downhill. The rest of the breakneck paced novel sees Lee band up against not just the infected but the greed-gone-evil human gang-lords in trying to survive himself and also get his band of survivors to safety. 

The book is by no means unique – it panders to the comfort reader in us but does it so well that it seems refreshingly original. Deep down the layers of that slick internet marketing and the phenomenal word of mouth publicity that has driven the sales of this book, it’s just another zombie lit done really well. What appealed to me outside of the slick movie-like pacing was the bond that Captain Lee develops with his band of survivors and most endearing was his constant companion and watch dog, Tango. It’s heart rending – and DJ Molles dwells well on the human mind that is trying to outthink and out-survive the dastardly plague situation they are all stuck in. Pain staking research on the weapons and the hunting techniques surfaces written in lucid prose peppered with the horror-movie style situations of prey-and-predator-hunting in shadows and the dark. Moments that stretch longer with the heart beat going faster by the second and then explodes in your face with bullets and bombs zipping around and the survivors scrambling. It’s well done – but it still reads like something that you would have read before. In terms of characterization, Captain Lee – the main protagonist of the series is a little annoying. Being well trained and having stocked up for such a situation, his cocky attitude makes for some careless moments that balloons up into drama that could have been avoided. But in the end, he’s what you got and you better stick with him. Perhaps he finds redemption in the later parts of the series. 

You will love this book. It’s guaranteed. It’s already riding on a high wave of WOM publicity but there is nothing that makes this book unique among the over-infested zombie lit floating around. A solid story that is entertaining but offers no answers to the myriad questions that arise and thus paves way for a series that tantalizes and hooks you in – written with a breakneck plot pace, featuring blood-thirsty infected “humans” that are mad with “fury”. A three stars zombie lit just well done.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Last City by Nina D’Aleo: Unbridled Imagination makes for a Stunning Mash-Up Debut

The Last City from Australian author Nina D’Aleo flew below my radar until I chanced upon a promo about the second book that came out in 2013, Forgotten City. A quick search got me intrigued and hooked onto the premise. A netgalley request for both books followed but it still took me quite some weeks before I cracked it open. 

Blade Runner Meets Perdido Street Station? Quite an irresistible premise and a lofty one to match up to I must say. Truths be told, I haven’t read the Phillip K Dick book, but yes, have seen the move. And Perdido Street Station by the weird genius China Meiville is the only “AUTOGRAPHED” authentic paperback version of a Fantasy book that I’ve in my bookshelf (sadly still untouched in terms of reading! Had met him in person in Bangalore a couple of years back) But The Last City does something wholly new and original in terms of a stunning mash up of noire crime, science fiction and fantasy. A layer of wholly unrestrained science-fictional imagination sandwiched with another layer of stunning fantasy world building and a fat patty of noire crime thriller in between.  That probably begins to describe what Nina D’Aleo has done with her book.

Nina has done what a lot of new authors would be dreaming of. Rewrite the rules of the genre with a mash-up that pushes the boundaries and refuses to be straightjacketed into a certain “type” of fantasy writing. It’s a bold vision – unabashed and unapologetic in its originality and imagination, deftly executed in a lyrical prose that brings alive the last city of Scorpia with world building of tantalizing depths that leaves you gasping for more.

With a cover to die for, a riveting story that combines some really twisted concepts together to come up a winner and some really big names backing it up on the blogosphere, I’m surprised it has not gone onto win some of the big awards yet. It’s a flawless debut that sets your imagination on fire.  Nina drops you right into the middle of the action through the eyes of the raw rookie on her first assignment, Silho Brabel who forms the one of the main protagonists of the story. You’re drawn right in with the vivid description of the murky rapidly deteriorating underbelly of the city of Scorpia with the fascinating creepy cross-breeds – “Tangelan Burrowers from the fallen city of Mayhem with their giant-razor-clawed hands and Rainbow-skinned Ohiri Fen who can morph items into different shapes. “  The decrepit grungy city running to the seams with such bizarre populace is brought alive effortlessly by Nina’s writing that sucks you right from the first chapter. At the shockingly gruesome crime scene is where Silho teams up with the darkly brooding Commander Kane (the superhero with the mysterious allure), the bumbling genius imp-breed Eli, the irascible authority-defying strong woman Diega an ‘electrosmith’ of the Ohiri Fen race , the quiet Ar Antarian Jude of the Royal Blood who’s got his own secrets to hide. You know right from the word go – put in five such characters in any setting and sparks are going to crackle and fly. The interactions and snappy dialogs between the team – especially the bumbling Eli who’s got “speech impediment” issues & his new friend, the convicted Ev’r Keets, a witch from the deserts, makes for some really entertaining lighter moments of the book. 

Once you get past the bizarre imagery and the twisted crooked races that inhabit this city, we settle down for a racy plot of a crime-thriller that gets surprisingly deep and pulls you in. The writings pretty solid, immersive and flowing and it never gets heavy-handed despite the myriad new forms that Nina’s thought and penned down. That for me was a winner. The best part about her prose is that the heavy-handed doses of detail don’t overwhelm you. The frequent manner of soul-searching where a character delves into the heave-hos of thier past mistakes and the present cataclysm that they are plunged into kinda of does play havoc with the pacing but not much to take the foot off the pedal. Action’s aplenty and with a crime scene splashed full of blood and gory innards being the starting setting of a story – you know that this noire-mystery/thriller is going to be nose-diving into an action-packed finale. 

Minor quibbles in terms of the plot being a little simplistic are quickly dealt with as we race towards the climax. A lot is going on here – with minor subplots that the different Tracker teams get into. And I did have frequent black-outs similar to what most of the characters suffer coming back to consciousness in some new exotic locale. This jars with the narrative as I get stuck for a while figuring what the hell happened before this to whom. But it all ties together well.

Weird in the good sense (‘Mievelle-esque’ sense) with a world that is unique and tantalizing and some unforgettable characters whom we cannot wait to see again, Nina D’Aleo delivers a stunning debut with the Last City. It’s definitely worth all the hype it’s garnered and am hoping the Forgotten City ups the bar in terms of the Weird and Fantastical. Four Stars!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Cover Reveal: Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness' All Souls Trilogy has become an international phenomenon - a filler for those looking for an entertaining "grown-up" fantasy that doesn't veer into the "dark and gritty"; what with her first book in the trilogy, A Discovery of Witches even being optioned for a Warner Bros movie,

Here's the low down on the third book, Book of Life. 
After traveling through time in Shadow of Night, the second book in Deborah Harkness’s enchant­ing series, historian and witch Diana Bishop and vampire scientist Matthew Clairmont return to the present to face new crises and old enemies. At Matthew’s ancestral home at Sept-Tours, they re­unite with the cast of characters from A Discovery of Witches—with one significant exception. But the real threat to their future has yet to be revealed, and when it is, the search for Ashmole 782 and its miss­ing pages takes on even more urgency. In the tril­ogy’s final volume, Harkness deepens her themes of power and passion, family and caring, past deeds and their present consequences. In ancestral homes and university laboratories, using ancient knowl­edge and modern science, from the hills of the Auvergne to the palaces of Venice and beyond, the couple at last learn what the witches discovered so many centuries ago.

With more than one million copies sold in the United States and appearing in thirty-eight foreign editions, A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night have landed on all of the major bestseller lists and garnered rave reviews from countless publications. Eagerly awaited by Harkness’s legion of fans, The Book of Life brings this superbly written series to a deeply satisfying close.

So the hotly anticipated stunning conclusion to this series releases worldwide on July 15, 2014 and here's the beautiful book cover - Feast your eyeballs and get working on that time-machine to roll in July closer :)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Latest on Words Of Radiance

Okay,  I've been so much a lunatic fan-boy raving about the immense potential and talent of a certain Mr. Sanderson that I think I cut a ridiculous picture if I push it anymore.

But I cannot hold it back, I am back to the drooling-half-mad-raving fan boy frothing at the mouth by the prospect of, what I wager to be the Best Ever Fantasy Series in "long"-running today, Second Book in the Stormlight Archives. The news from TOR is that the book hits the stands worldwide on March 4th this year. Can I spin those wheels of time a bit faster please (PUN intended, yes)

The first book was such a pleasure to read - The Way of Kings brought us closer to Kaladin Stormblessed, the destiny's child and Dilnar Kholin, the tortured General, the enigmatic parshendi and lots more interesting characters - searing into our hearts. And now we cannot wait till we go back into that strange world of Roshar.

So for all those fan-boys who suffer from my conditions, here's a bit of a teaser - which will turn you madder waiting for 4th March, I know. The Prologue and first 2 chapters of the second book, Words of Radiance. Enzoi.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Among Thieves: A Promising New Voice of Fantasy

Among Thieves is a simple enough title but Douglas Hulick’s debut novel - A tale of the Kin #1, ten years labour of love according to Douglas - is anything but simple. A debut that almost rivals Lies of Locke Lamora in terms of the style, the settings and the sheer fun element. Almost. While Lies of.. still remains one of my best reads in terms of fun and entertainment, Among Thieves comes a close second as a debut effort. 

A novel that follows in the wake of Sword & Sorcery novels reboot in the dark and gritty fashion hailing grey roguish men (or Boys in the case of Locke and Jean?) with a sense of honour as central characters – Among Thieves sees the rise of yet another thief, Drothe caught in the spider-web of conspiracies and flying knives between different criminal overlords and the empire. Drothe who runs a side business of smuggling imperial relics (when not doing his normal ‘day’ job of being a ‘nose’ ferreting out information from rumours for his boss) happens to come by a relic that has him scrambling and diving in and out of sewers to survive while chased by pretty much everybody alive – a couple of criminal bosses, assassins on hire, the dreaded White Sashes who are the Empire’s clean-up soldiers on the streets, Magicians who can walk into dreams and out, his own sister – now a courtesan and thus wanting to sever ties with her criminal brother, warriors of an age old Order. You name it. It reads like a thriller as Drothe struggles to stay ahead of all of them and also unravel the mystery surrounding the so-called relic and well…stay alive in the process.

Among Thieves is set in the city of Illdrecca, a melting pot of criminal activities split into two section of general populace: the Lighters or the ordinary citizen and the Kin, everybody allied to different crime organizations. The web of activities that play out and overlap are all beautifully organized into different hierarchies based on the job functions like spies (Nose, Wide Nose, Long Nose), muscle for hire (Arms), street magicians (Mouth), rumour mongers (Ears), purse cutters etc. Illdrecca comes alive beautifully in Douglas’ measured prose that alternates between Drothe’s muddled thoughts spilling over each other and the explosive dance of swords that erupts after every thirty or so pages.

Douglas goes for a first-person narrative in the scathing voice of Drothe, a Nose inside the city of Illdrecca – the dark underbelly of the Empire whose job is to ferret out information for his boss, a criminal overlord. Drothe is one of the finest first-person narratives I’ve enjoyed – There is no honour among thieves. Drothe begs to differ. This is not to say that he doesn’t have that side which doesn’t maim, cut or kill to get what he wants. He does all this and more. But at the end something that sets Drothe apart is his unshakeable confidence and his sense of honor that never gets sullied. In the beginning, it is his sense of self-preservation that gets the upper hand and we tend to slot him as just another self-possessed cocky bastard who wants to get by but as the book progresses, we see inside him. And his character becomes more and more endearing with all the chinks visible in that armour of a cocky self-assured survivor. His struggle to do the right thing, his friendship, his affection for his sister and for all the people he has promised to protect and then failed. Drothe is something of a bumbling fool at times and gets his ass kicked in all the fights he gets into. But it’s not his strength or skill you admire. It’s his nerves and sheer will power that you admire. He is a stubborn son of a bitch who will stick to the right way for all that he bleeds.

Suffice to say, his characterization was absolutely brilliant and he stands towering over everyone else in the book. His never-do-well acquaintances include a sell-sword called Bronze Degan with his own mysterious past with a quick wit and an even quicker sword-arm, a magician from the streets (Jelem)who can mouth glimmer(magic), armed muscle for protection and bodyguard detail (Fowler), a Jarkman or master scribe who can forge documents(Baldezar). All of them are interesting studies – characters who bleed and rant and joke while being perfectly lovable and still remain a criminal. I, for one, would have loved to get into both Degan’s and Fowler’s head.  Imagine a furious relentless swordfight from inside Degan’s head. The beauty of the swing, the technical precision of that killing thrust and the well-judged parry, the well-executed feint and that swishing killer stroke! Ah!! I hope we get to see more of them soon!

Douglas’ presents a rivetingly new and absorbing fantasy world in Illdrecca – ruled by an Emperor whose soul has been split into three by the Angels and as ordained, the three reincarnations come back to life every cycle to rule the empire. Lots of things come to the forefront pretty early on – that way the writing gets a little tiresome and nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Especially the terms/language of the ‘thieves cant’ that Douglas uses – dustmans, jarkman –I had to go back and forth to pick it up. And just like Drothe caught up in the whirlwind of a wrong conspiracy, till sometime you have no idea of what in the name of the Angels, is happening.

But like a well written book, things start unravelling and the pace picks up as you read sleep-deprived just like Drothe who suffers from insomnia and has something of a substance-addiction to ‘ahrami seeds’ to clear up his mind and think sharper. All the cardboard archetypes that you fit in the characters as soon as you see them, suddenly seems flimsy as they break out of their stereotypes and wham! Hit you with the surprise element. Backstabbing and treachery is the order of the day. As you are swept along by the tide that never ebbs, you thrill and shudder at the same time with the discovery of new plots and newer powerful enemies. I read more than 50% of the book in one sitting. I haven’t done that in a long while now.

A walk on the wild side with some swashbuckling sword fights, an intricate intertwined mystery-plot that seems to get murkier by the page and a rollicking pace that never lets up, Among Thieves is a fine low-fantasy tale that should easily figure in your best fantasy reads ever.  A promising new voice, Douglas’ next in the Tales of the Kin, Sworn in Steel is set to be published sometime this year and I for one, am waiting with bated breath.