Monday, September 26, 2016

Necrotech by K C Alexander

Angry Robot has had a way of rewarding us readers with the new and the unexpected when it comes to genre fiction, fantasy or science fiction. Books that break current boundaries, set the stratospheric new heights and also define new sub-genres in that process, giving us fiction we didn't know we needed

Necrotech is the prime shining example of good things to have come out of that process. Rebelliously, ridiculously good things that rank definitely up there among the best. Re-defining the scope and boundaries of cyberpunk science-fiction thrillers. I cannot believe this is a debut. I cannot believe K C Alexander hasn't written a book before. If this is Chuck Wendig writing under a false pen-name, I wouldn't be surprised. But heck no, he;s written a glowing endorsement for every foul word that has fountained from under that pen. 

So if you loved Miriam Black series, then you will love Rikko. The female protagonist whom you will choose to love or hate but just cannot get out of your hair.  Snarky from deep-inside-to-outer-core. shockingly violent and as free-and-foul-mouthed a person can ever be. She wears her sexuality like a badge, doesn't really distinguish between a girl or a guy but just folds it unto her designs to get to her goals - with a personality that doesn't win points for being polite or even remotely like-able, it's a wonder how Rikko gets called up for jobs on the street. 

And what job do you ask? She's a "splatter" specialist in the street. Something like an obstacle remover or assassin, perhaps. In this world, where tech-integration into your body is an essential way of living, religion is just a way to ease up your conscience at the end of bad day and the environmental degradation has forced humanity to seek refuge in Mega-cities, a bad day for Rikko means she ends up with her memory slate wiped clean, watches her lover/girl-friend get turned into a "tech-zombie" (where the tech or AI sneaks over and takes control of the body through her mind bidding her do ghastly stuff!) and her reputation on the street, goes for a toss - she's branded a traitor to the cause of having sold out and abandoned her entire team for money. 

Second book that uses amnesia as a plot device in this month that I'm reading - but both couldn't have been any more different. Necrotech is like the eruption of Mt.Fuji, drowning you in scalding lava - and yet forcing you to suck it up and keep moving forward. It's explosive and it's raw. KC's writing is like a solid right-and-left-hook combo that leaves you breathless. Pacy as hell, an engrossing mystery brewing beneath all that blood, gore and curses flying all around that kept me hooked to the end. 

The ruthless futuristic world that Rikko is a part of, comes alive in a glorious manner throughout the story - the tech-enhancements, the nano-tech that helps heal your body, the genetic experiments are messy ( So most characters are characters of color - so yeah, a lot of diversity here and the names for me, distinctly sounded like a mangled up version of Indian names. Krouper = Kapoor? Mallik ? Nanjali!) the world itself minus the ozone layer being burned away and prolonged exposure leading to cancer - It's all effortlessly a part of the narrative without standing out and I thought this was absolutely cool. 

Coming to the characters, of course Rikko stood out. First person narrative, that allows the readers to get up close and personal insider her flawed and angry head - Rikko is an intense character that will overwhelm you. With her eruption of feelings and anger issues, she's not the most suavest, savviest person in the book (Nope - that title belongs to Mallik 'cool cucumber' Reed!) but that only made her more appealing to me. But along with Rikko, there were other shining stars. Starting with Indigo, the 'linker' on her team, who's supposed to be the 'brains' of all operations and guide the team on their mission as he's plugged into the information highway and accesses every info-bit available about such, wasn't the strongest or the coolest around. But the raw anguish of having lost his sister to the "Necrotech" and his mammoth trust issues with Rikko makes for a brilliant characterization. Mallik Reed, the "corporate" connect for Rikko, who decides to fund-roll this new operation for Rikko to uncover her memories and thus, the mystery of what really happened to her and her girlfriend, now he is a sinister cat alright. Ice-cool temperament and nerves of steel, this guy is someone you don't want on the opposite side of the ring.  

This definitely reads like the first part of a series - and therein, lies the only grouch I had. No payoffs at the end of this book for the mystery - Oh we get teasers alright and it only makes life harder. There are dangerous glints that can lead off into the speculation alleys but I will rein it in. It's a book that you should read. Satisfying that massive itch about hard-hitting cyberpunk you never knew you had. Truly an unexpected pleasure this year. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Grace of Kings ( Dandelion Dynasty # 1) by Ken Liu

Growing up, history was my favorite subject (Given that my mother was a history teacher and at least till Tenth I absolutely loved sinking back into the legends that make up our world in the annals of history! After Tenth grade though, the sciences took over!) The Grace of Kings is epic fantasy yes - but it oh so beautifully reads like my favorite historical lesson. (Impossible not to draw parallel with the Classical Age of Ancient China, the rise and fall of dynasties that make up the rich layered tapestry of this nation's history!)

Ken Liu has swept through every award possible with his short fiction - and we were so glad and super excited that we were finally getting a full fledged novel from him! So with respect to the expectations, it was of course stratospheric and breaking beyond the outer edges of every space-barrier discovered or not. But with The Grace of Kings, the opening salvo in the Dandelion Dynasty, Ken proves beyond any spec of a doubt that he can walk away with his head held high. And we also know that he's just getting started with this. He's building his own dynasty in this genre fiction, full of gems, burning bright and carving that space unique to himself.

His first novel is a riveting tale of war & politics, love & friendship, honor & betrayal mixed up with some annoyingly meddlesome Gods in a landscape that draws parallel with perhaps, an alternate version of ancient China and yet, is a wholly original, fresh and brilliantly imagined world. It's a rip-snorting fantasy ride, epic and grand in scale that thumbs its nose at the currently-in-fashion gritty, dark, in-your-face narrative style common to many of our favorite stories ( am thinking Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks and the ilk) and instead, settles for a rendition that unfolds much like a history text-book opening, page after page. It probably takes away the intimacy that I am used to with my fantasy protagonists but it works so beautifully to draw out a well rounded view of the grand scheme of politics in this world that is just mind-blowing! Fringe characters who influence the events and have a say in the turning of the wheels. Minor events that can catapult the world into apocalyptic wars. It's heart-wrenching and haunting, then it goes cold and remote in parts, then takes up a pedantic approach at times, in terms of methodologies of war and deceit detailed and then it's shocking and emotionally draining. Its a roller coaster of a ride through this amazingly detailed and immersive world of Dara. Religion, culture, mannerisms, symbolisms, traditions, vocations, food and culinary quirks, logistics, the clever and cunning inventions - the smallest of the details that make up each of the different island kingdoms of Dara, all brought alive so unobtrusively and so well. The world building, it is just friggin' brilliant. Period.

The plot, simplistically, is about the rise and fall of fortunes of two men - favored by the Gods, admired, feared and loved by the people of Dara in equal measures who grow up to overthrow the yoke of tyranny and then by a strange twist of fate, end up as enemies fighting for different ideals.
As I said before, Ken's style of narration might just throw you off as you tend to be distanced from events and people and yet, Ken invests readers to care much about his two leading men. Two men who are as different as can be. Kuni Garu, a young man with no fortunes and confused about his future, whose compassion and quick thinking are his greatest assets. Mata Zyndu, son of a deposed duke, thirsting for revenge, an angry young man for whom nothing is greater than his ideals and honor.
In the fight against Emperor Mapidiere who broke the pact between the different kingdoms to conquer and annex all of them under one rule, Mata and Kuni join hands through different twists and turns of the fate to unite and take the fight to the empire. The two main leading characters go through a whole process of evolution as the world around them changes by turns. It seems like there is a clear black and white to the proceedings by the second half of the book but there again, Ken introduces new characters whose entry changes our perspectives of these two. Especially Mata. I really really loved this guy! Zealot, idealistic, hot-headed and impossible.

But more than Kuni or Mata, there are fringe characters who actually stole my heart. Luan Zya, a philosopher and strategist who tries to murder the emperor by dive-bombing at this imperial procession right in the beginning of the book - and later pops back into Kuni's life to be one of his main-stay advisors. Or Rat, Mat's die-hard follower whose ideals are defined by his hero's towering acts of valor. Princess Kikomi, a short but powerful cameo whose actions redefine the term 'sacrifice' and which boomerangs back on the imperial forces. Kindo Marana, merchant, accountant and then peerless military general and strategist, whose habits of seeing logic or structure in anything around him serves him well on the battlefield. Gina Mazoti, the shrewd military general (a lady!) who makes her entry in the last quarter of the book and stays firmly in our hearts! There are quite a lot of these characters who actually pop into the narrative at random intervals and set the ball rolling in completely directions.

Ken straddles a dangerous edge, opting in for an omniscient point of view of narration to do justice to the grand scale of things in Dara but for me, it worked. Big time! There was no other way he could have turned this tale around.

As I finish the last few chapters of Grace of Kings, (which by the way is sort of an emotional tsunami and the rise and fall in fortunes is dizzyingly twisty!) I knew this is a special tale. A tale that is just beginning, grand in scope and equally so, in execution. And I know there is no one better than Ken Liu to wield the reins here and guide us down this history. Blending mythology with history seamlessly, Ken's Dandelion Dynasty continues with The Wall of Storms coming out on Oct 4th. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

September Books ( Better late than never!)

Better late than never, I say. Swamped down and struggling to plow through the list of to-be-read pile of mine, I wanted to let you guys know these are the gems from September that I want to definitely read up and for which, am super excited about!

Of Sand and Malice Made by Bradley P Beaulieu

A prequel novella in the same world as The Twelve Kings that brings back Ceda and her gang, and this time three inter-connected adventures set in the bustling Sharakhai - bring back the blood soaked prophecy, the magic, the sheesha-dens and amazing adventures in the desert. Bradley is doing it again. Twisting the tropes, rewriting the rules of this genre. I loved it. You should get your hands on it. Out now, from DAW books.

Cold Forged Flame by Marie Brennan publishing is experimental to the core - Marie Brennan takes a break from the adventures of Lady Trent and Co. to write about this absolutely nutty fantasy-thriller about a woman, with no memories of her past sent out on an improbably quest in a landscape that might not be what it may seem like. More power to her imagination, I was hooked and will be looking forward to more of her stuff.

Ferryman Institute by Colin Gigl

Touted to be a breakout debut fantasy of this year, the premise of this sounds too good to be true. An immortal ferryman who assists souls to make their journey over to the 'other' side as the protagonist? Who meets this young girl whom he inadvertently saves - his best decision or his worst nightmare. Ahem, Sounds a bit like Transporter in the undead lands, reel me in baby!

Comes out Sept 27, Gallery Books.

Mortal Song by Megan Crewe

I am usually intrigued by all things Japanese - starting with Shogun by James Clavell that influenced my young mind in school. So when this 'thrilling & heart-wrenching" YA fantasy set in modern-day Japan came into my radar, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Looking forward to read this soon.

Comes out, 13 Sept 2016 From Another World Press.

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

Fran's debut won a truckload of awards, Updraft. Set in a brilliantly realized world up on the clouds (set on living bone!), populated with heroic and gritty protagonists, the series continues to build on it's strengths in this sequel. I never did catch up on Updraft but this month, I am rectifying that mistake. And soon!

Comes out Sept 27, Tor books.

Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

I loved The Invisible Library, that was Genevieve's first book in this series and her dazzling debut. Pure exhilarating fun read. And I cannot wait to get back to the world where these librarians maintain order against the chaos and of course, the amazing characters in it. So this was a no-brainer for me, the paperback version releasing in the US this month.

Necrotech by K C Alexander

Hardocore, post-cyberpunk in a tech-plagued future dystopia. You had me at cyberpunk! So this smacks a bit like Altered Carbon from Richard Morgan and promises to be hair-rising ride through this altered futuristic world where flesh-and-machine fusion enhancements are a way of life.
Next up on my TBR!

Came out Sept 6, Angry Robot. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Of Sand and Malice Made ( A Shattered Sands Novel) by Bradley Beaulieu

Bradley Beaulieu is one of my go-to-authors in present day fantasy - breaking new grounds with every single release of his - and so, it was with barely restrained excitement, that I plunged back into the ruthless but gloriously realized desert world of Sharakhai, Of sand dunes and dark horrifying prophecies, of blood magic and the terrifying consequences. Of demons and their curses. It was a welcome return back to the wind-lashed sand-dunes in the Mother of Sand, the sheesha-dens and the roaring fighting-pits - right back into the lives of Cedahmin Ahyanesh and her friends, one more time.

Ceda was one of the most formidable heroines/protagonists introduced to the fantasy genre last year and I was more than happy to partner up again, this time against demoniacal forces formed of the whims of the desert-gods who decides to wreck havoc in her life. Of Sand and Malice Made is a three-part novella that traces the life of our protagonist, a couple of years before the events of the Twelve Kings. And this mainly is her story of her being pitted against an ehrek, a djinn of sorts with twisted desires whose fate gets intertwined with Ceda's.

We meet Ceda as a sixteen year old up-and-coming fighter in the pits, popularly known as the White Wolf, setting out for her fight as the novel opens up. Ceda, also has recently started her night-runs, smuggling messages and artifacts for Osman, an ex-fighter who's made the big league and has his own businesses now with a stake also in the pits. one of her missions gets thwarted and lands her in trouble with a high-society lady, who unfortunately is also under the protection of Rumayesh, an ehrek or a mythological magical creature formed of the whimsical fantasies of a deranged desert God.

Ceda's adventures puts her in direct conflict with Rumayesh and she also attracts the attention of a couple of Godlings or God-children, in this city for their own vested agendas. The webs run deep and wide and soon, Ceda finds herself enmeshed in this unexplained game of cat and mouse with the ehrek in her city and it's not just her own life at stake but her loved ones.

As you can make out, this tale is deeply, richly and un-apologetically magical. Gods, curses, blood magic and prophecies; Bradley owns all these elements in his rollicking desert tale in a manner so original that it didn't feel for one bit, unnatural or forced. For new readers, this book forms the perform pit-stop to hop on into Ceda's life without feeling overwhelmed. But if you haven't read his Twelve Kings yet, then you should be rushing off to buy it.

As you can imagine, this book is solely about Ceda and her fears and misgivings make her a realistic protagonist to back up. The uncertainties of a sixteen year old living in this harsh desert world and the deals she makes to get by in life. Of the other characters, I really liked Brama. The boy, another gutter-ren growing up in the streets of Sharakhai was a nicely etched out character who gets caught up in the schemes of Rumayesh through his own folly and greed. Emre and Osman, some familiar names from the first book in the Song of the Shattered Sands series make their appearances as well in this world that is already familiar to fans of the neo-arabian-nights-esque tale.

A fitting addition to this absolutely gorgeous and lush epic fantasy, if you haven't read this series as yet, then Of Sand and Malice Made is an apt springboard into this magical world of sand dunes and killing fields. You won't be disappointed. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Movie Review : Mouna Guru ( Tamil, 2011)

Been a long time since I saw a movie that I came away impressed and wanted to write about. One of the new movies that I have been wanting to watch, is this hindi action-thriller called Akira, starring Sonakshi Sinha.

Hyped up as a high-octane action thriller from the makers of Ghajini, A R Murugadoss directed Akira promos looked pretty promising. But the initial reviews I read, really put me off. But good things are worth waiting for, huh. So I did find that this one's actually inspired by a 2011-Tamil thriller, called Mouna Guru. I had never heard of this movie but figured, I might as well watch the original. remakes never do justice, we know that by now right?

First day of the long weekend, finding myself alone at home with the doggies for company, I did just that. Verify that the original beats the remake, by a far bigger margin that I had expected. Relatively low budget, this one doesn't have any 'stars' and is also the debut directorial by Santha Kumar. Apparently this went onto become a sleeper hit and has been remade across other south indian languages. This really piqued my curiosity and I knew I had to see the movie. Even so, I kept my expectations in pretty much a tight rein.

The movie starts off very un-dramatically, focusing on this serious college youth, Karunakaran ( Played by a stoic looking Arul Nidhi) who's life revolves around his studies in Madurai. We learn nuances about the young man - in terms of his kind heart ( A scene early on where he rescues a cobra and sends it to out the wild) and that he's an extremely righteous man who cannot abide by to see any wrongs committed. A bit hot-headed as well, this combination obviously doesn't bode well for him in this restrained society. A scuffle with a policeman lands him in trouble, getting rusticated from the college and thus, having him move into the big city Chennai pattanam where his brother, manages to find him admission through his contacts.

Initial forty minutes, the movie plods along at a sedate pace - setting us up with Karuna's character, a nice but brief love-story with Aarthy, his sister-in-law's sister ( Iniya: Immensely talented in this bit-role!), the brief conflicts at college with the good-for-nothing ruffians who disrupt the classes and likes. The pace really perks up (literally plunges down into a rabbit-hole with no brakes!) with the introduction of John Vijay's character. He's mean, to dirty rotten core of his character's heart and plays the nasty cop role with aplomb, giving menace a new meaning. That's the start of where the movie really started to shine.

ACP Marimuthu and his close coterie of cops, three others, witness a road accident - and decide to hush it up and make away with a bag full of money in the car. But the secrets spill - and the body count starts to go up. The screenplay is twisted but taut, never letting up - leading different threads to entwine and enmesh, further plunging the movie down darker places. One thread ends up at Karuna's hostel one night and implicates him as the one trying to exhort money from the ACP to keep things hushed up. Karuna is taken away by the ACP's gang and they decide to do away with loose ends through a staged encounter, deep in the forest reserves on the TN-AP Border.

Hats off to the cinematographer Mahesh Muthuswami and of course, the debutante director Shantha Kumar for sticking true to the dictates of the thriller genre. I was on tenterhooks throughout the movie, despite the cliched settings. The encounter scene deep in the forest, is testimony to this. It's a creepy, hauntingly claustrophobic scene where the gun jams just as the Inspector Rajendran is about to shoot Karuna in the head. Timed to perfection and a proof that, in such relatively unknown small movies, thriller as a genre still thrives and flourishes in Tamil.

Things fall off the edge of a cliff after that - with the narrative just rushing ahead like a steam-engine at full throttle with too many things happening all at once. Karuna is the unwitting victim of the twisted egos and deep-seated greed in the heart of people who run the political system. But he isn't taking this lying down. Things explode after a particularly well-shot escape scene in the mental asylum after which Karuna decides to take things into his own hands and takes the fight to the people who screwed up his life.

Arulnidhi who plays the lead character, does well in flashes and bits. He has to play this restrained character who is chomping at the bits to let go and fly off his handle, but lives within the constraints of living in this society that turns a blind eye to wrong-doings. Initially this act comes across as forced, wooden and stoic but he gradually settles into the role. Especially the parts of a short romance which I liked purely because of Iniya's lively act, I would have liked this chap to live it up a bit. But hey after the first half, he really does come into his own. Definitely maturing as an actor but long way to go.

The supporting cast is absolutely brilliant. Each cameo done so well, memorably etched out in that script. The Father who is the head of the school or the mentally unstable friend in the asylum who helps Karuna escape, the police-gang in cahoots with ACP and best of all, crime-inspector Palaniamma ( played by Uma Riyaz Khan) who really stole the scene with her character of that 'one' morally upright police-woman in the system who strives to do the "right" thing. Wonder why she doesn't get more roles ?

To sum up, if this weekend you decided to shell out a thousand bucks on your neighbourhood cineplex - then don't! I think you are much better off staying at home, watching this movie which is the original of the Sonakshi-Sinha action-fest Akira ( which by the way, is a damp squib that even Sonakshi-rambo-Sinha's pyrotechnics cannot save! Yes. Despite Anurag Kashayap. Despite A R Murugadoss. This female-lead Ghajini is better off with full on memory-loss!)

A seriously under-rated well-made thriller that is a gem to have come out of this movie industry too busy worshiping "super-stars" delivering illogical blockbusters. Hats off to Santha Kumar and his team. Afternoon well-spent.