Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Company Town by Madeline Ashby

Madeline Ashby is a name I am familiar with, but I've never had the chance to read her mind-boggling and 'compelling' science-fiction books series, Machine Dynasty [ io9 review terms it to be 'the most messed up book about Robot Consciousness'] So when I heard her latest, Company Town is going to be released in May, [The book released on May 17] I jumped in and put in a request. And now, I am a fan for life! 

Seriously, Company Town is an engaging, intelligent and extremely accessible, science-fiction thriller set in the near-possible future, an oil-rig company-owned town called New Arcadia off the coast of Canada. Featuring one of the most enigmatic female leads I’ve read in recent times, The Company Town works at different levels as a novel. Starting off sedately in a possible science-fictional set-up, it almost turns the way of a homicide thriller chase as the body count goes up, mixed up with corporate intrigue but ultimately goes back to its core, raising questions about the human nature and our quest for perfection that never ends.

Times are such that everybody is almost a superhuman – enhanced capabilities through implants and medical patches. All that is except for our protagonist, Hwa. Born to Korean parents, Hwa is purely organic – meaning no implants and that is what makes her special. Hwa works as the bodyguard in a unionized sex-worker’s organization – she’s athletic and trained in martial arts and is the perfect choice to be the security detail in this town that is recovering from an oil-rig explosion [ the one incidentally where she lost her own brother ] and is going to be taken over by this new corporation, Lynch ltd.
By a strange twist of fate(or not!) Hwa ends being the bodyguard and self-defense coach for the fifteen-year old Joel Lynch, who is to be the heir to the entire corporate empire – and who is facing death threats, as issued by sentient AI forms from the future, beyond the Singularity. (Yeah, it does get super twisty weird at times!) Hwa’s boss, Daniel Siofra has a soft corner for her and looks out for her most times, but it’s from herself that Hwa probably needed to save herself.

Hwa – a Korean by birth and born with a huge stain on her face, thinks herself to be pretty un-attractive. This low self-worth with respect to her looks, drives her to the gym and martial arts – and this wallowing in self-pity habit, is further brought on because of her mother, Sunny who hates and despises her. Hwa who is never afraid of wearing her emotions on her sleeve, however has this tender moment, intense and sweetly vulnerable later in the book when she is forced to confront her beliefs in this regard. But these episodes of depression and loathing take a back-seat when dead bodies start turning up all over town. Her former union friends, sex workers. And the threat to Joel Lynch couldn’t have been coincidental.

Company Town is storytelling genius – it had me hooked and I was racing to the finish from the time I cracked it open. I honestly admit to having been stumped by that final few chapter revelations around artificial intelligence, time-travel and sentient beings – but Hwa, Joel and Daniel are such amazingly real characters that you have to root for them and stick with the story.

Joel is the genius kid who inspite of the money, remains balanced and level-headed throughout the turmoils of the book. Daniel, on the other hand, Hwa’s boss is the calm, unruffled composed nice-guy you can rely on at all times to go by the book and do the right thing. But there is this fantastic and intense moment later on in the book, where Daniel snaps. And man! It’s like the world’s been flung away from under him and his tender relationship with Hwa takes on a new turn. As a reader, I definitely welcomed it. But Hwa is definitely the best thing about the book. A spitting hell-hath-no-fury-like-Hwa-spurned fireball of a woman who, by virtue of being the last person on that oil-rig who is fully organic and refuses any implants, is the special one. And her handicap ultimately turns out to be her winning hand in this race against a serial killer.

Ultimately, raising more than just a few uncomfortable questions on AI and humanity – especially coming right on the heels of having watched Ex-Machina, the movie – Company Town is storytelling at it's sublime best. I absolutely loved the premise and the wonderful execution by Madeline Ashby. Company Town deserves a lot more attention, it is at the end of the day, a scintillating science-fiction story that is surprisingly tender and humane.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Halfway through 2016. Damn!!

It's June, damn! We're already done with half this year. Don't you get this nagging feeling that every year, as it goes by, goes a little faster than the previous one. No seriously, you're so involved in getting by from one day to the next that you fail to realize that months are rolling past. Fast.

Anyways - it's time for a breather and take a look at all the June books lined up on the read and review table. It's another doozy of a month with some fantastic titles lined up [ oh wait! B&N says we got a whooping 56 titles launching this month!!] and here's what I am looking forward to:

Wheel of Oshiem by Mark Lawrence

The Red Queen's war comes to a spectacular finish with this one! And that's a series I still haven't got started on. [ As of now, I quarter way through with Prince of Fools, and Jalan and Snorri seem to be rollicking company for the rest of the series. On board and Away!] I am rectifying this, soon enough this month. So it just might be a Mark Lawrence month!

Hope and Red by Jon Skovron

A adult foray by Jon Skovron, this sounds like a real fun caper. Was one of my eagerly awaited titles and am definitely going to jump into this one.

Orbit Books introduce us to Jon here and is also one of the Barnes&Nobles top 2016 SF/F books.

Dark Run by Mike Brooks

This new title (Oh gorgeous gorgeous cover, btw) from Saga Press is garnering a lot of praise, one of those books you would love if you're a big fan of Firefly as a series. Here's a nice article on io9 about how Mike created this well-crafted world that reminds one of The Expanse. A fast fun and rollicking ride through outer space, Count me in for this ride!

Stiletto by Daniel'o Malley

I just got the audiobook for Rook - and the first couple of chapters were pretty bad-ass! I am hooked and this continuation of the series is the razor-sharp sequel to this genre-busting urban fantasy/horror story.

In the Shadow of Gods by Rachel Dunne

Another novel that's been on my wait-list.

Something about Twins going up against deranged Gods makes me tick. This one's a high-fantasy adventure that I've been wanting to read - somehow, I felt this one rounds everything else off nicely as there seems to be fewer and fewer 'high' fantasies going around.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Hatching by Ezekiel Boone

Hatching, the new book (Coming out in July from Emily Bestler books in US and RandomHouse Penguin Canada) by Ezekiel Boone is going to be the new poster-book for an apocalyptic extravaganza -A deftly written thrill-ride that focuses on a horde of man-eating spiders devouring the world one city at a time and will definitely have you cringing and gasping in fear. 

It's the ultimate pulpy fun - Ezekiel writes in a fluid fast fashion that really appeals to your heart, at the same time twisting that freak-show dial way up. The story has a bunch of realistic characters banding together to fight against a freaky horror-show, without a clue as to how to stop the marauding army of arachnids and that impending sense of doom holds sway throughout. 

Spiders and the end of the world? 
It really does seem a bit far-fetched right? And yet, the way Ezekiel has his story unspool, you cannot but get carried away. It all starts in the jungles of Central America where a wealthy American businessman is out on a trek with his bodyguard and four super-models for company. The trek soon turns into a horror-show when the company is over-run by a ‘streak of black shadow’ that devours them in no time. We switch back to Minnesota where divorced special agent Mike Rich is having trouble connecting to his teenage daughter and also reconciling with the fact that his ex-wife might be truly happy in her new life. Mike’s life though, gets thrown out of whack when he is assigned to investigate a plane-crash and he discovers a nasty surprise: Spiders crawling out of the dead bodies of the passengers.

Ezekiel amps up tempo by bringing in a couple of perspectives: A research scientist, Melanie whose expertise is spiders and who has just discovered an egg sack from the Nazca line in Mexico, dating back millions of years ago. And her ex-husband, Manny who is the chief of staff to the President, who just discover that China has nuked out one of their own villages.

The action is crazy and non-stop – the army of spiders are crawling all over the world. Starting in the deep jungles of central America, to a sleepy village in China to the underground metro station in New Delhi and then swinging over to the US of A. The narrative is kept on a knife’s edge by the deft writing and we get a lot of minor view-points as the panic spreads like a dark wet blanket. I felt some of the POVs definitely rounded off the story but indeed, we could have done without some that just wears things down without a conclusion. There is no explanation to the behavior of these spiders - they are just instruments of destruction, programmed to feed. Which is why, it's all the more terrifying as the world keels over, helpless and clueless, without any resistance, cities swarmed over by the black horde. The army is handicapped, having to take care of the domestic panic mobs, fueled by fear and uncertainty. 

While in no ways a polished novel, Ezekiel's engaging manner of writing lends a patina of credibility to the overall setting. The B-grade movie feel of grisly horror is offset by his intelligent dialogues and sympathetic characterization. His vision of the world scuttling towards a doomsday, devoured by these eight-legged freak spiders is believable and seems to work. A hair-raising, skin-crawling winner of a book that puts the pulp back into fun.