Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dark Currents, edited by Ian Whates

The authors who contributed to this anthology were given two words, “Dark Currents” with which to create a story.  Most came back with stories involving space, the sea, or electricity.  It’s a diverse collection of stories, some quite good, others less so.  There’s an art to writing a good short story.  The authors in this collection used two different approaches.  Some had complete, self-contained stories.  Others were complete stories, but served more as preludes to what could be, and in some cases I hope are, full-length novels.  I enjoy both kinds.

Alternate Currents, by Rod Rees was one of the standouts.  A period piece involving Nicholas Tesla and a mysterious object from space.  A fun stand-alone story and one that could spawn more stories or a full-length novel.

Loose Connections was another story that served as a prelude to what could be a longer story.  While it was quite good as far as it went, it stopped more than concluded.  Where Rod Rees wrapped up his story while leaving a world ripe for further adventures, this story felt unresolved.

The Barricade by Nina Allen was another standout.  It impressively created a nuanced character and a very atmospheric mood.

The Bleeding Man by Aliette de Bodard was also a cut above the rest.  A well-developed main character and very interesting story.

Things that Are Here Now by Andrew Hook was one of my least favorites.  The author seemed more interested in coming up with clever metaphors than telling a story.  Some of the metaphors worked, most didn’t.

The rest of the stories were a mixed bag.  A variety of moods that did a good job of sticking to the theme.  The sum result is some very good stories and some pretty mediocre ones.  All in all, an enjoyable collection.  I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Mirage, by Matt Ruff

There’s an old adage that history is written by the victors. Matt Ruff expands and explores that idea in Mirage. Mirage is the story of a world in which Arabia is the superpower and the United States a third world backwater country. In this world, Christian fundamentalists fly planes into the Twin Towers of Baghdad on November 9, 2001 (11/9 vs. 9/11). The twists keep coming in this upside down world. Except some of the terrorists remember a different reality. One in which the United States is a superpower and the Arab world a backwater. And they have some artifacts from this reality that seem to back up their story.

Mirage is told largely through the eyes of Arab Homeland Security Agents, mainly Mustafa al Baghdadi. He is tasked by the president to investigate the “mirage rumors”. There are people within the United Arab States who don’t want that to happen, as well as people who think their lives would be better in the mirage world.

I enjoyed this book because if features interesting characters with interesting backstories. The concepts explored were also very intriguing. Are the seeds of violent fundamentalism always present in any religion? What circumstances cause them to come out? How might political alliances that we view as unshakeable change if they sprang from different circumstances? 

My criticism of the book is that the reverse parallels seemed a little overdone and at times seemed gimmicky. (11/9 vs 9/11, wikipedia vs. libraryofalexandria, etc.) The placement of prominent public figures on both sides of the conflict in roles they might play in the mirage world is well-done for the most part, although sometimes it seems unnecessary. The most enjoyable and identifiable characters are the fictional ones.

Despite any criticisms, Mirage is a story that makes you think and keeps you engaged. The core concept is brilliant and the exploration of the alternate world is fascinating. The characters, especially the ones without real-world counterparts, are interesting and well-developed. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book. It is an enjoyable read that will stretch your mind.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Quiet Flame, by Phillip Kerr

I had read and enjoyed Phillip Kerr’s work before.  Thrillers like Esau and The Second Angel among my favorites.  For some reason, I had avoided his Bernie Gunther series, probably because I am often disappointed when an author excels in one genre, but disappoints in another.  A Quiet Flame proves me wrong, at least as far as Philip Kerr is concerned.  This is an excellent noir mystery.

Bernie Gunther is a well fleshed-out and complicated character.  The events of A Quiet Flame span Berlin in the time of Hitler’s rise to power and 1950 Argentina, with a thread connecting both timelines.  Kerr does a magnificent job of bringing both pre-war Germany and post-war Argentina to life, but particularly Argentina.  I was completely immersed in the setting which let the mystery unfold naturally.  Gunther wrestles in both timelines with his own conscience and guilt all while doggedly pursuing answers.  The viciousness of the Nazis and those who conspire with them both during their rise to power and in their exile after the war is laid out with brutal frankness through the eyes of a man who recognizes their evil but also recognizes his own will to survive.

There is a certain beautiful brutality in the Kerr’s descriptions.  There is also a recognition of the impossibility of true justice for those who commit such atrocities.  The depiction of the coverups involved after the fact reflect more an attempt to evade justice than any sense of remorse.  The depiction of the Peron government also shows a willingness to look the other way and in many ways, act as despicably as the Nazis in pursuit of political power.  

The crimes Gunther investigates both in 1932 Berlin and 1950 Buenos Aires are interesting in their own right, but it is the settings and the characters around these crimes that make this a truly wonderful book.  I was fortunate to receive a copy of this book through Goodreads.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

By the Blood of Heroes, by Joseph Nassise

Steampunk, alternate history WWI, fighting the Kaiser’s zombies, oh, don’t forget the Bloody Dead Baron...what’s not to like?  The answer is not much in the first volume of Joseph Nassise’s The Great Undead War.

By the Blood of Heroes is the first volume and it kicks the series off to a great start.  The war in the trenches has ground to a stalemate after the Germans invented the zombie gas which reanimates the fallen soldiers and turns them into barely controllable shock troops for the Germans.  Scientists on both sides continue to work on inventions and experiments designed to give their side a decisive edge to win the war.  An American ace gets shot down behind enemy lines.  This pilot holds a little known secret which could prove devastating to the Allies if discovered, so a rescue mission deep behind enemy lines must be undertaken.  Working to stop the effort is the infamous Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.  

This is a very inventive and very entertaining book.  Interesting characters on both sides along with dirigibles, steampunk inventions, and mad scientists all in a richly populated and detailed world.  The action moves along briskly from start to finish with plenty of surprises along the way.  Looking back, there are a surprising number of set pieces.  From the trenches, to the battle in the air, to POW camps, to experimental research facilities, to airships and trains.  The amount of detail and action crammed into this book is impressive.  The only thing that felt a little rushed was the backstory between the downed pilot and the leader of the team sent to rescue him.  Hopefully this can be expanded a  bit more in future novels.

There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required and maybe a thing or two that don’t bear close examination, but all-in-all this is a very well thought-out and fun adventure.  There were a number of things that could have been glossed over in the hope that the reader would just accept them, but the author went to the trouble of providing a plausible explanation for most of them.  That attention to detail added to my appreciation of the story.  I am looking forward to the continuation of this series.  Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Black God's War, by Moses Siregar III

I was fortunate to receive an early review copy of The Black God’s War, a very interesting fantasy debut from Moses Siregar III. 

The Black God’s War is an interesting take on fantasy tropes in that there is not really a clear cut “evil” to overcome or a clearcut “good” to overcome it. Both sides in the battle have their own viewpoint and it’s never clear what would constitute a victory for either side. 

The writing is consistently good and the characters feel real and interesting. The system of magic is certainly different, but ultimately not very well explained. One side in the conflict, the Rezzians, calls upon the powers of the gods, who are present if not often seen, or at least seen by many, yet whether or not they choose to manifest their powers as called upon is somewhat arbitrary. The other side in the conflict, the Pawelons, rely on powerful sages. These sages use a form of concentration and mantras to manifest their powers. Several things about this system of magic are never made clear, however. Some sages study for years, but can apparently teach their powers to others with no apparent training in a matter of days or hours. It is also never explained what makes some sages more powerful than others or how those powers compare to the powers wielded by the Rezzian gods.

The plot moves steadily forward and maintains interest, but the results of the battles and the strategies employed are unreliable. The feelings and motivations of some, but not all, of the main characters seem to change almost randomly. It is hard to become invested in the outcome of the battles when there seems to be no permanence or consequence to them.

Maybe the point is that motivations for starting and continuing a war are murky and clouded by personal feelings of those in charge. Or that the outcome of battles and maybe even entire wars is irrelevant and inconsequential. As a story, though, it is ultimately unsatisfying. 

The level of the writing and some of the concepts involved make this an interesting read. The holes in the plot and the arbitrariness of some of the outcomes make it less satisfying.

Erebos, by Ursula Poznanzki

Erebos is a fun, moody, thriller of a novel set in the world of computer gaming. 

A mysterious disc is being passed around school, and students are being very secretive and acting strangely. When someone passes a copy of the disc to Nick Dunmore, he finds an incredibly addictive computer game called Erebos. The game wants to keep itself secret and seems to know things about him that it shouldn’t be able to. It assigns him tasks not only within the game, but in the real world too. When Erebos’s influence starts to have serious consequences in the real world, Nick must decide if he wants to win the game, or defeat it.

This is a fun book that does a good job of being exciting while also building a growing and pervasive sense of dread. The characters are a little two-dimensional, but they are interesting and mostly believable. Author Ursula Poznanski does a good job of creating a world and describing the moral dilemmas faced by characters in that world. Actions are sometimes divorced from consequences in the gaming world, but are real life actions that different when someone is offering you a reward for a morally dubious or downright dangerous act?

Some of the character interactions and conversations, particularly outside the game, are a little stilted, especially early in the novel. Some of that may be a result of translating the book from German to English. The description of the game and the depths to which players sink into it seems a little more immersive than should be possible in a game played on a contemporary computer. That being said, I was drawn into the incredibly compelling game within the book as well.

A game with a mind and a goal of its own is not exactly a new concept, but it is done well here. The contrast between players trying to win within the game with others outside the game trying to figure out and stop the game from reaching its ultimate goal is an interesting dynamic. The ending of the story raised my opinion of the book. The author made some smart choices and it paid off. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book. Highly recommended.