Monday, June 30, 2008

[Lisa’s Take] The Automatic Detective – A. Lee Martinez

As usual with Martinez’s work, this was an absolute delight to read. I really can’t fathom how goddamn creative this guy is – every book just has a zillion new and entertaining concepts.

The Automatic Detective is (relatively near) future sci-fi, in which an AI glitch in robots makes some of them human enough to apply for citizenship. Our protagonist is one such robot, a big, red, war-machine named Mack. Mack is going through the 4 year audit process to gain citizenship, working daily as a taxi driver, when events conspire to put him in the role of a detective. So – think your standard 30s, hard-boiled-detective story, and now cross that with an extremely creative sci-fi setting. There really aren’t words for how awesomely it works out. There are quite a few nods (direct rip-offs?) of the noir genre, and playing them out with Mack as the main character makes them a riot.

Martinez did a better job this time around balancing “cool ideas, humor and parody” with “actual serious story and characters.” JD pointed out that a lot of parody authors suffer from the problem where they’ll start out doing humor, then lose that perspective once the story progresses and gets serious. Early Pratchett is a good example. It takes a fine touch to keep up the satirical theme and keep things entertaining once the plot thickens – even more so to keep it fun without cheapening the storyline. Some of Martinez’ other works were heavily weighted one way or the other – starting out light and fun, then ending dire and plotfull – but TAD kept it well balanced. I’m pleased to see him growing as an author.

My one gripe with the book is one the seems to be cropping up a lot lately – it could have used a better editor. Just little things... a couple of stilted or unclear paragraphs, repeated words, etc. Not enough to really do my good review any damage, but a pet peeve that seems to be happening more and more often. Are editors just sucking these days, or have my standards risen?

Overall: super thumbs up. You can take this book out in an afternoon or so – like all of Martinez’s work, it’s a super fast, bite-sized read, and tons of fun. This book just begs to be made into a series; it has so very much potential, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will continue to parody the genre with many, many, many continuations.

Monday, June 23, 2008

[Lisa's Take] Kushiel's Mercy - Jacqueline Carey

I suppose should quit procrastinating on this review and just get it done. With all 5 other books in the two Kusheline trilogies I’ve procrastinated long enough that I couldn’t finish the reviews off – I don’t know what it is about these books that make them hard for me to review. So. Being as this is the 3rd book in the trilogy, I’m not going to do a plot summary – the spoiler possibilities are too perilous. If you have no idea what the theme of this series is about, thing fantasy-heavy alternate history with a big dollop of sexuality mixed in. My opinion of the book overall is good, so I’m going to start with the bad and then end with the good so as not to leave off the review with negative commentary.

Kushiel’s Mercy is by far the most flat of all the Kusheline novels. There. I said it. I’ve felt like all 3 of the books from Imriel’s Trilogy have struggled – at the start of the trilogy it took Carey a loooong while to get Imriel’s voice established as clearly separate from Phedre’s (the narrator of the first 3 books). His voice was differentiated eventually, but I still felt like all 3 books fell a little short of the high standard set by the initial trilogy. This third book was absolutely the weakest of the trio, with a plot that was pathetically predictable and contrived – I mean, really. I called Every. Single. Major. Plot-point. I kid you not. The book also suffered quite a bit from the “and then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened.” syndrome, which is always displeasing. The whole thing read much more like a romance novel than the sweeping, epic, fantasy-political drama that the first three books established – I very much got the impression of Carey saying “this is me, riding out my franchise! Wheee!”

All of that said... I still enjoyed the book. If there’s one thing that Carey does well, it’s evocative and beautiful prose, and as always her words were a pleasure to read. Though the plot was predictable, it was still interesting and it never dragged. I loved her characters, and the interlude in the middle of the book that’s narrated from a different character perspective was very well done (much more so than her initial transition to a new narrator back in the first of Imriel’s books). In spite of knowing how things were going to end, the book still got me pretty sappy and smiley. It’s saying something when flaws as big as the ones outlined above don’t manage to ruin the experience... I’m sure my healthy dose of nostalgia and attachedness to the characters helps, but there’s still something impressive there.

Overall: positive thoughts. I’ll absolutely continue buying her books if she continues producing them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

JD's Take: The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)

Lisa already gave a pretty thorough review of this book, so I'll skip any summarizing and go straight to a discussion of its merits.

It's been a long time since I got this thoroughly drawn into a fantasy novel. The writing is fluid and beautiful, the characters distinct and interesting (with a couple of exceptions), the events exciting, and the world different enough from other fantasy domains to not be boring. I really, really didn't want this book to end, a wonderful and rare feeling.

A couple of minor faults cropped up. He reused a couple of phrases word-for-word within a page of each other a couple times, which jars me out of the narrative in an unfortunate way. Slightly sad, but more a fault of the editor than the writer. Neither the story nor the story-within-the-story have any sort of even semi-conclusion at the end of this book, a fact that is usually annoying but actually didn't bother me. Part of that is almost certainly the fact that he's apparently already written the entire series and submitted it as a single book. Again, not his fault the publisher decided to break it up. There's also the super-competent main character...

ah fuck this. I could almost certainly come up with some other stuff to complain about, but it'd be deeply pointless. Let me cut to the chase: this is one of the best books of any genre I've read in years. It's a serious fantasy novel that surprises and delights, it has dark moments and sublime ones. The prose is amazing and engaging. If you like fantasy at all, you will love this book. Put aside the distrust for covers with "Book 1" on them (you earned that distrust... I understand. Try anyway). I wouldn't recommend starting this book until you've gotten caught up on your chores, done your shopping, and finished your current video game though... all nonessential tasks are likely to be postponed until you close the back cover.

Monday, June 09, 2008

JD's Take: The Nymphos of Rocky Flats (Mario Acevedo)

I laughed this book off a couple years ago when it came out. With a title like that, who could blame me? Then the sequel came out, and then the third one. I decided that it deserved a chance, and I needed something fluffy to read, so I picked it up. Sooooo, is it worth the strange glances you'll get on the street reading this one? Let's find out together!

I imagine that Mario pitched the book like this:
Vampire Private Eye! Sex Crazed Mystery Women! Government Conspiracy! Vampire Hunters! HOW CAN IT FAIL???

And some poor publisher thought "You're right! It works for everyone else these days! Let's do it!" and thus the series was born. Sadly, the book... kinda... sucked. The writing was alright, but the plot seemed cobbled together out of internet forums (government radiation makes women horny! vampires seduce with a stare! Stakes! Nymphs! Area 51!).

The main character was well characterized, but such a huge cliche that no real work was required to make me "get" him (A vampire that refuses to feed on humans? How clever!) . The rest of the characters lacked any real definition... they could each be explained as a Cool Concept that wasn't ever flushed out. The vampire hunters are laughably characterized, and really didn't have any place in the story, they appeared to be added in because there wasn't enough drama with the main plot alone. If you've read Harry Dresden books you've seen the whole "let's just keep piling shit onto this situation until the sheer mass of it spontaneously combusts into a dramatic finale" schtick done well. This was done... not well.

The book reads quickly, and it was entertaining enough... but it had no emotional punch, no character empathy, no fascinating plot line to really engage you. It read like a Reader's Digest story... it kills a few hours but you don't get anything out of it.

Oh, and there is no on-screen sex in this book. Really.

Overall impression: skip it. Read some Anita Blake if you want vampire sex, or Harry Dresden if you want supernatural PI done right, or Umberto Eco if you want a proper conspiracy theory. This feels like a slapped-together Johnny-Come-Lately to the burgeoning Fantasy/Romance/Horror bastard subgenre.

[Lisa’s Take] Dies The Fire – S. M. Stirling

Here’s a nice easy review: cool premise, bad execution. Plain and simple.

The Cool: In 1998 something happens. There are big scary flashes of light, and suddenly everything electrical stops working. Planes fall out of the sky, city systems come crashing to a halt. To add insult to injury incendiaries stop working as well, so guns are also kaput. Dies the Fire follows two groups of characters through the resulting mayhem, as people come to terms with the situation and start to find new ways to survive. Turns out that Rennies and SCA people have the advantage (I kid you not). Stirling comes up with some really cool ideas and takes a very critical look at the implications of such a large scale disaster. He’s not afraid to examine some of the more gruesome aspects, and he manages to fabricate some intriguing circumstances. Another cool thing: Stirling also delves pretty deeply into the Wiccan religion for one of his character groups, which makes for some interesting reading.

The Bad: You know how people often complain that they don’t like sci-fi because the characters aren’t as good as in fantasy? Yeah. What they said. There are a couple of character issues here. First off, there are too many characters, and Stirling doesn’t do a good job keeping all his secondaries well described and differentiated. He either needed to cut down the core cast a bit, or make all of the core characters more memorable. This ties in a bit with the second gripe – even the two main characters aren’t all that interesting. At least they were original, but I never really connected with either... I was just largely “meh” about them. So sad. On top of the character issues are some problems with narrative flow... it was fine through the first half of the book, but towards the end things start jumping around, and it was just a little uncomfortable to read. The story also dragged on a lot longer than it should have – it’s obvious Stirling had a laundry list of “ZOMG Cool Ideas!1!” that he wanted to get to before the book could end.

So, the review was easy, but the bottom line isn’t. Given all the good and all the bad, I really don’t at all know whether to give this book a thumbs up or thumbs down. I guess we’ll go with a caveat: if you don’t mind lack of good characters or characterization and the lack of it won’t ruin the book for you, give it a read. If the cool premise isn’t enough to do it for you on its own – skip it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

[Lisa’s Take] The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue

I picked up The Stolen Child at random from McKay’s... it had a pretty binding, and it was cheap cheap for a nice little hardback. I’m easy. Turns out it was a pretty good decision, as the book was a fast, original, and interesting read. I took out basically the entirely thing on a flight between DC and Atlanta, if that says anything for how quickly it reads – definitely a nice Sunday afternoon book.

The Stolen Child builds upon a common fairy tale – the myth that changelings infiltrate households and exchange human babies for goblin replacements. The story follows two boys... the “real” Henry Day, who was stolen away by hob goblins when he was 7, and the “replacement” Henry Day, who was once a goblin, but is now growing up as a human. The book alternates chapters between the two of them, and follows them both as the replacement Henry Day grows up, starts a family, and has children, while the real Henry Day remains perpetually a goblin-child. Not only are there a lot of really creative and interesting fantasy-based ideas in The Stolen Child, but it also touches upon some relatively deep themes.... displacement, betrayal, entitlement, etc.

Outside of the interesting story, the characters are fairly vivid and solidly developed. The prose didn’t blow me away, but it was above reproach and produced a lot of good mental pictures. The blend of fantasy clashing with reality was quite original. Overall the book was very good, and I don’t even really have any knit-picks, which is always a positive sign. Definitely give this one a read if you’re in the mood for some quick escapism that’s not entirely fluff.