Saturday, September 26, 2015

Your Brother's Blood by David Towsey

A weird western zombie? I was definitely intrigued when I heard about David Towsey's daring debut, Your Brother's Blood that promised to be a fun mashup but what I wasn't expecting was the emotionally draining narrative and a deftly executed story that never loses its tight personal focus till the surprising climax.

Yes - I'm late to this party and I discovered David Towsey's excellent debut pretty late ( this book was released in 2013 by Jo Fletcher Books) but I'm glad I did and I really am jazzed up now that I've finished the intriguing story. Are there more books set in this universe? ( Edit: The trilogy is now complete - with Your Servants and Your People (2014) and Your Resting Place (2015) )

So at the heart of this story is unflinching faith - gone a bit too extreme in it's interpretation. The biblical references are very strong - be it the character names like Thomas, Mary, Sarah, Samuel or the very cool transcriptions from 'Councilman Cirr's speeches at the Black Mountain Consensus' at the start of every chapter or the chapter/book numbering that follows Bible. David here is telling us a twisted tale of 'the seeds of the devil' and 'tarnished souls' for whom the gates of heaven are closed, left to fester and walk the earth after they are dead. Known as the 'Walkin' the undead souls are now as much an inheritor of this meek earth as are pockets of humanity - sparse and left to fend for themselves with very little. David cleverly doesn't expound on the causes of this apocalypse - only that certain men and women are prone to become 'Walkin'. The holy texts refer to this as the Second Fall of man.

Small-town America - represented here as a town called Barkley named after the founder whose texts and tenets are still held up and followed religiously ( fanatically by some!) - is a gritty desolate landscape hemmed in by bordering 'redlands' and inhospitable mountains all around. The idyllic town where the citizens toil for their livelihood is rudely jerked out of its dream living when the Red army barges into town - to recruit young men of good faith to take the fight to the 'Walkin'. And then as months go by, the blissful town that imagined these slow shambling seeds of the devil monster only as part of the fiery gospels delivered by Pastor Grey in their Sunday Sabbaths suddenly experience the horror in person - as Walkin' - dead soldiers from the war - shamble into town. To get back to their older ways and reunite with family. One such is Jared Peekman - who is publicly executed along with his younger brother as family carries the taint.

Another is Thomas McDermott.

The first scene where Thomas wakes up in the middle of badly burnt pyre of dead bodies and realizes he is now a Walkin' - with full memory of his past life, including his lovely wife Sarah and daughter Mary whom he left behind in Barkley and the clear memory of the enemy's bayonet sinking into his chest - is absolutely haunting and evocative in full measure. That's when I knew I had to finish this book to see what happens to Thomas and his family.

It's gripping, it's harrowing and it's zombie western done extremely well - while the world is massive and the story could have gone in any interesting tangent, David plays it close to his heart. Smartly using chapter headings to establish some parts of the cause of the apocalypse and setting the stage where Walkin share the world with humans, he drops enough hints for an intelligent reader to pick up and expound their imagination. But he keeps the narrative really tight and spins an achingly beautiful and heartfelt story of a father-daughter duo who find their broken links and mend their relationship. Bonding on the road, on the run from crazed fanatics blinded by extreme faith.

Thomas, the father and Mary, the daughter are characters that will sear their way into your heart. Mary - who quickly adjusts to the fact that her father is a Walkin' stole my heart with her guileless naivete and charming simplicity of looking at life. So does Thomas who keeps things in perspective and is torn between his love for his daughter and the need to do good. A character we entirely sympathize with for the quandary he is in. That of being an undead possessed fully of his earlier life memories and needs.

On the other side of the camp, we get a mixed bag of villains -and not all of them are baying for the Walkin's blood. Luke, the face of faith gone ugly was definitely the most interesting while the others were a grey mix. Nathaniel, the gravekeeper, Belize the law keeper, Pastor Grey with his bible thumping loathing of the abominable Walkin' etc were certainly intriguing but with so less page-time dedicated to them, I couldn't get myself to like them much.

It's a slim book - and an immersive fast read at that - and for the same reason, by the time we race to the finish that sees the final confrontation between the bad and the good guys, we feel the ending is a bit rushed. I felt cheated - but perhaps that was intentional as now am definitely invested for the rest of the trilogy. David's sparse style of writing certainly fits the bill for the zombie western type of novels he is spinning out and am hoping to pick up book two and three right after in this biblical trilogy. A truly memorable debut that deserves more attention and love!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P Beaulieu

Bradley is one of the genre's finest talents pushing the boundaries and scope of fantasy. And he proves it again in fantastic style with the Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, first book in the Song of the Shattered Sands series. His first series, Lays of Anuskaya introduced us to a russo-mythology inspired world with a touch of the forgotten Ottoman culture in lush detail. The Twelve Kings takes a step further and takes us right into the heart of a captivating and wondrous world of a desert civilization where Gods grant power to mortals, the undead walk the sands at night and subterfuge and intrigue rule the day.

So Twelve Kings is set in the bustling desert metropolis of Sharakhai, a trading city in the middle of the great sprawling desert. A city that has slums, fighting pits, sprawling mansions, sheesha-denns and tea houses, communal baths and palaces on the hills jostling for the attention of the citizens. The fighting pits sees brutal competitions between champions of the sand-city with others wanting to test their skills and training from cities far and wide. Where a desert viper slithering between the feet of the combatants decide who fights. The most famous fighter, White Wolf hasn't lost a bout yet - and this fist-pumping action sequence right in the beginning introduces us to the nineteen year old Ceda, the real face behind the mask of the White Wolf - and the heroine of our desert adventure.

Ceda is a gutter-wren who grew up running the streets of Sharakhai with her close gang of friends. At nineteen, she still continues to run, carrying messages for a price - and on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir, Ceda actually discovers a secret along with her childhood best friend Emre. You see, the night is when the terrifying asirim, a horde of the undead force directly under the command of the Twelve kings, roam the streets looking for those marked by the Kings to be taken into undead service. And Ceda when she runs up against one of the foul killers is amazed when the asirim doesn't kill her but kisses her on the forehead.

Now Ceda has history with the kings. This is where Bradley uses the flashback sequences very smartly to build up the backstory and fill us in on what makes Ceda so bitter, the reason for her simmering rage. The sensual writing just drew me in - as the world opened up. The first sequence where Ceda meets the desert witch Saliyah and is able to witness future visions of herself - of receiving an ebon blade from one of the Kings himself as a Blood Maiden - all this made for enthralling visuals in my mind as I sped on. We learn that Ceda's mother was executed by the Kings and hung at the ramparts of the city for all to see - and so Ceda has made it her life's mission to exact revenge.

And yet, this isn't a simple straightforward story of a girl's revenge. There's magic. and then there's blood magic. Plots thicken as other players enter the fray - Ramahd, a noble from the neighboring city of Quaimiri, wants to capture the head of this rebellion group called Moonless Host. Who are hell bent on removing the taint of the Twelve Kings from Sharakhai. Ramahd has his own reasons but aiding him is his sister-in-law, Meryam - another unreliable character whose motivations are shrouded in secret and who can also channel blood-magic and wreck havoc against anyone.

The third major POV is Ceda's best friend, Emre - whose story arc in my opinion was the weakest. He plays second fiddle to different people throughout the story but his staunch unwavering loyalty to Ceda and his earnest efforts to do good make him a pretty endearing character.

The best aspect of any of Bradley's work is the stupendous world building. I could feel the choke of the desert air, the cacophony of the slum bazaars, the terrifying howls of the black laughers, the music of the durbars and the clash of the shamshirs renting the air. I could smell the roasted pistachios, the honeyed rose-water and the thousand-layer sweets in the market. The world was alive and I was so immersed in the achingly beautiful descriptions of the desert civilization as I read on.

And with Ceda, Bradley has given us one of the most remarkable heroines in Fantasy genre. Tough as nails, resolute and very resourceful, Ceda is a fantastic protagonist who goes through hell to see justice served for her mother. Sometimes we forget that she is only nineteen. I had to suspend my belief at certain points in the story to go with the flow - Ceda goes through a lot in the book and by the end of book-one in the series, we still feel much of the secrets are yet to be spilled. There are layers to Ceda's story and they unfold in lush style through the flashback sequences.

The pacing is a bit of a slow-burn with respect to the overall plot of the series - we head off into darker corners of Sharakhai with different tangential narratives - all of them interesting and gripping yes - but sometimes I felt it weighed down the pacing.

The Twelve Kings are still a mystery - each of them with their own set of terrible prowess and yet their POV chapters are unreliable - as there are seeds of doubts sown in my mind about each of them, whether they would uphold their four-hundred year old secret or will they turn on each other? There are Gods thrown into the mix - and first book is just the opening salvo for a very ambitious series.

Character arcs are just beginning and we know we're in for one hell of an adventure - riding over the sand dunes, unlocking the mysteries of the adichara petals - as Ceda infiltrates deep into the enemy territories as one of the Blood Maidens. The conspiracies thicken, history reveals treachery and backstabbing. Bradley has created one of the most enthralling and hauntingly immersive worlds in Sharakhai and lovers of epic fantasy should definitely brave the dunes and the killing fields to walk beside Cedahmin Ahyanesh as she sets out to complete her mission in the coming books. This one's going straight up the top of my best reads for 2015, richly deserved four stars and above. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Flash Season One: Not a Review

So Barry Allen (Flash, the fastest superhero in town) and his nerdy gang of friends & family have made their definitive mark on us. Season One is over and boy! What a rousing tale, safe to say that the speedster has zipped through our hearts, huh. So Flash started out strong building up on the basic foundation we grew to love from Arrow (fellow superhero from the DC Comics world!) and then as the season moved beyond the mid-season finale with the introduction of ‘reverse-flash’, things really started to zing up. Going on to really hit it out of the park by the season finale, thus setting our expectations pretty high for the oncoming season two.

You know when I saw the premiere, I wasn't impressed. How would this skinny youngish looking fella carry the weight of the world on those frail shoulders ? And zip around at express speed saving the world from Apocalypse? But hey, Grant Gustin went on to blow past me doubting dorothy. In fact, the whole series showcases not just him but a wonderfully warm set of lead characters: Joe, the cautious father figure and one of the top cops in Central City, Barry's foster sister cum late love-interest Iris, the S.T.A.R labs geek duo of Cisco and Caitlin and of course the coolly menacing Dr. Wells with his big bag of secrets - the bonhomie and the camaraderie the leading cast shared was pretty visible onscreen - And each of them wormed their way into my heart. 

Season One started off - strong and confident because the writers of the series had already honed up their craft with The Arrow - and the superhero myth was already created. We'd seen the "Particle Accelerator Explosion" that gives Barry his super powers - and we pick it from there in Episode 1 with Barry coming to terms with his super sonic speed powers. The series fell into a rhythm with each episode introducing a new villain - who again owed their super powers to the night of the explosion. In fact the whole series has two major themes running through out. One, is the night of the explosion. and two, is the night when Barry's mother was murdered under mysterious circumstances and his father gets framed for the same. Barry has made it his life's mission to get his father's name cleared - and this overarching theme gets solid meaning by the mid-season finale when we are finally introduced to "The Man in Yellow" or the Reverse- Flash. From here, the series gets a lot more grimmer and tighter leading all the way to a nail biting finale that keeps us tottering on the edge of an explosive cliffhanger!

The team's got it spot-on with respect to pacing and the tone remains even, perhaps a little bland in the beginning with some misplaced romancing ( 'She loves me-she loves me not' hot-stepping footise dance between Barry & Iris' character ) and a lot of father-son moments (between Barry and Joe, one of my favorite characters in this series - Jesse L Martin clinches this role!) and till the mid-season we all were just going along with the flow waiting for the what's going to be the latest villain-package coming up with some unique power to blow our minds. The writers played to their strengths mixing things up a bit by bringing the vigilante of the Starling City, the hooded brooding Oliver Queen ( The Arrow ) and other team members of Arrow's vigilante army into the fray to do some double-trouble bagging of the more notorious villains. Comic book fans will rejoice to meet the some familiar Flash villains like Snart or Captain Cold ( Essayed by the Prisoner fame, Wentworth Miller who brings precious nothing to make the role stand out, sadly) and Heat Wave. But then with the introduction of Man in Yellow, I really sat up and got my talons hooked deep into this series. Things were heating up - and at supersonic speed!

Two things that really impressed me about the series were: The special effects; digital animation that brings alive the story and conflicts and next, the characters themselves. Gustin brings in a wide-eyed earnestness combined with tobey-maguire-style pathos and depth to the role of the scarlet speedster - and he gives it all. The season finale should be proof enough that this boy has what it takes to make your tear up and also sit up on a bed of nails waiting for the next season! Apart from him, the best thing about Flash was Thomas Cavanagh's character, Dr. Harrison Wells - the mentor who takes on Barry under his wing - until < Hey! Warning - Spoiler Territory !!> he turns out to be...yeah...The Reverse Flash. Absolutely cool in his personification of the evil genius - right till the end - bringing a sense of quiet gravitas to the role, we just cannot help loving this villain. His burst of sincere affection for Barry's super prowess and Cisco's native brilliance is just super endearing. I don't know whether he is going to be back in the next installment but I'm praying and hoping. The others all put in commendable performances completing the happy little family of the Flash that he keeps banking on and leaning back into - be it Joe ( Jesse Martin - take bow!), the adorable nerd god Cisco ( Carlos Valdes) and Eddie ( Rick Costnett) bring in the warmth and humor to the show - that was sorely lacking in the seasons of The Arrow. Perhaps another reason why The Flash is much better received. 

The Flash Season One is for all sorts of viewers: long time fans of the comic books and people new to this fun super hero. There is a simple story here that will definitely make you go weak in the knees - but if it doesn't, am putting my bets on the funky time-travel concepts and the futuristic ray-guns. And if all that isn't enough, then we've got an 800  pound psychic gorilla who makes King Kong's assaults look like a baby's day out. I dare you to sit out this unstoppable, pure unadulterated fun version of a speedy superhero!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bookburners by Serial Box: Badge, Book & Candle Episode 1 Review

Serial fiction isn't new. It's been around for centuries now - but what Serial Box is bringing to this way of storytelling is a super fine collaboration that might just be the next big thing after the Particle Accelerator Explosion. Missing the grit of Daredevil or need that fix of Breaking Bad or are you biting your nails down to bits waiting for the next season of GoT?

Well, here's good news for you! Serial Box is bringing to your reading device a pulsating new series that is a combination of supernatural horror and police procedural, sixteen episodes of monster hunting, magic and non stop fun. Officially launched on Sept 16th, I got a chance to read the first episode of the series, Bookburners - Badge, Book & Candle.

Written by a team of authors including Margaret Dunlap (Eureka), Mur Lafferty (The Shambling Guide to New York City) and Brian Francis Slattery (Lost Everything), the group is lead by rising genre star Max Gladstone (Three Parts Dead and the Craft Sequence), bookburners is an urban fantasy that is a deft blend of mystery and supernatural horror - wound the way of a high-octane, heart-pumping police procedural. Episode-1 introduces us to Sal Brooks, a NY cop unwittingly drawn into a magical war with ancient demons teaming up with a black ops squad from Vatican to save the world against apocalypse. 

So episode 1 sets the stage for the larger season arc - with Sal losing her brother to an ancient evil brought into this world through a magical artefact, a book banned by the Vatican - and Max Gladstone who's penned the first episode is in top form here. Dry wit mixed with high octane action in a lucid effortless manner. It's a super quick read and we're thrust right into the middle of the storm, wasting precious little with setting the stage. Inspector Sal is a complex character with her own misgivings on life - but I personally liked the Vatican black-ops agents, Father Mechu, Liam and Grace a lot! Hoping to see more of all of them in the future. It's fast furious fun and I really hope it's going to get better from here with the next episodes. 

You should check this one out if you like new weird, magical artifacts ( Books with Teeth! Demons that live inside them!) and are an urban fantasy fan ( or not!). First episode is free here ! Your weekly fix for great fiction ends at Serial Box - and I am excited to be part this ride. Week. After. Week.