R.M. Prioleau – Firebrand (2012) | Book Review

R.M. Prioleau FirebrandEver since the whole Harry Potter multimedia empire began, stories about young wizards and various other magic-tinged fantasy novels have become a dime a dozen. Whereas previously just about every work of fantasy had been trying really hard to be the next Lord of the Rings, the trend in fantasy now is to try to be the next Harry Potter.

Firebrand, the first in a planned trilogy by R.M. Prioleau, fits comfortably into the mold of these young-boy-becomes-wizard stories. The keyword here is “comfortably,” for better or worse. The story follows a young man and his little brother, who are sent away by their completely unlikable parents to be part of a magic school, where they are trained from a young age by essentially a very angry, bitter Dumbledore/Gandalf-type wizard.

The storyline itself follows typical progression. There is some early struggle, but Kaijin, the protagonist, gets a hang of the power and becomes an above average wizard. Very few stories are told of the wizard whose abilities are just “meh.” Naturally, evil is a foot and there is much fire and undead creatures and general ne’er do-welling.

Although the picture painted so far doesn’t scream excellence, there is still some merit in Firebrand. R.M. Prioleau’s prose is above average, and aside from a few moments that felt a bit cliched, the dialogue is pretty good too. Unlikely so many self-published works, there aren’t any times in Firebrand when the writing ability of the author, or lack thereof, gets in the way of a reader’s ability to enjoy the story.

Firebrand may be highly derivative, but it is certainly readable and will probably appeal more to young readers who don’t mind revisiting territory that has already been revisited too many times before. The target audience isn’t grown-ups, and it isn’t the kind of young adult read that will cross over to readers of all ages, but it’s certainly the kind of thing that younger readers will eat up. It’s well-written despite its “been there, done that” feel, and it very well may become more interesting as the trilogy goes on. Fantasy aficionados with a taste for young adult literature will find something to enjoy in Firebrand.

Rating: 3 stars (of 5)

Firebrand is available in eBook form from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and in paperback form from Amazon. Check out R.M. Prioleau’s website, and follow her on Twitter.

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Daniel Powell – The Silver Coast and Other Stories | Book Review

Short story collections as a rule are a bit more difficult to do well. On average, you’re relying on around a dozen stories to keep the reader’s interest, and one or two duds can really drop the overall thoughts on a collection. As it so happens, Daniel Powell‘s collection The Silver Coast has issues, but consistent quality of readability is not one of them.

All of the stories have some kind of science fiction element. Powell shines especially when dealing with post-apocalyptia, including a touching story about the few remaining survivors of a small town in a zombie apocalypse. Another tells of a man escaping prison to find his lost love in a post-nuclear world, not knowing one way or another if his partner even survived the disaster. This story in particular feels a bit too brief, however. If it were stretched to closer to a novella length Powell would have had better opportunity to highlight the troubles of the search and make the payoff a lot more satisfying.

Other stories, such as one about a man’s obsession with an old car he sees parked on the side of the road, have a good twist but don’t grab the imagination quite as vividly a the better parts of the collection. That said, Powell is a solid writer with good dialogue that moves things along, with his biggest strength being his ideas. Although not every story is brilliant, his ideas are consistently interesting enough to inspire continued reading.

Strangely enough, there are some stranged formatting problems in the eBook edition. The first few pages are nothing but weird tags that don’t register as anything but jumbled HTML on the basic Kindle. For the entirety of the collection, full empty lines are used between each paragraph, which doesn’t really come across well in a book such as this. If you can get past the formatting issues associated with the ebook (which we cannot verify are also present in the print edition), this is a strong collection. It seems that if Powell were to do a full length novel that gives him more time to build his characters and work through his wonderful ideas, he could write something really special. The Silver Coast and Other Stories is at the very least a readable and enjoyable collection, but has a few stories that stand out as borderline excellent.

Rating: 3.5 stars (of 5)

Michael R. Underwood – Geekomancy (2012) | Book Review

There seems to be a new trend in modernist urban fantasy to try to squeeze in as many pop cultural references as humanly possible. Some readers seem to get a kick out of reading a book that uses the word “frak” so that they can think to themselves, “I know that reference.” Not really sure why that is appealing, but these sorts of novels seem to be selling pretty well. Michael R. Underwood‘s Geekomancy is definitely that sort of book.

The primary basis for the world is that there is a large underground group of people who are able to channel nerdy pop culture things into temporary magical powers. Ree is a struggling screenwriter working a crummy day job who is drawn into this world when a crazed man wanders into her store, purchases a copy of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, and runs away. The next time she sees him, he is battling a troll straight out of classic fantasy, and she becomes one of the lucky ones that is actually able to remember the fantastical things she sees instead of going through a convenient amnesia following any supernatural incidents.

Roughly the first half or so of the book is spent introducing Ree and the reader into the world, as well as filling just about every page with a reference of some kind. Eastwood, the teacher who Ree originally meets buying the classic graphic novel, is an unlikable jerk who teaces Ree how to take power from the geeky things she likes; the stronger the user’s connection is, the better the results. The remainder of the half sets up the basic elements of what will become the actual plot, and breaks it up with so much useless dialogue that if the comedy style isn’t to your liking it is hard not to skip ahead pages at a time.

Once things start to get serious and the first of two significant twists comes, the plot becomes a focus of the novel rather than an afterthought. Ree and Eastwood are essentially trying to stop a chain of cosmically connected suicides, a surprisingly heavy idea considering that the book spends the majority of its time as a fluff piece. At the very least, Ree is an extremely likable character who shines when the plot starts to roll, and Underwood is actually a good writer with solid, believable dialogue and prose that does its job without being distracting.

Although this kind of novel will absolutely not age well, it will be enjoyable for some right now. It lacks any kind of real depth and definitely feels like the candy bar equivalent of urban fantasy, but it is still enjoyable if one is able to adequately suspend his or her disbelief and take the book on face value. Appreciated on its own merits, Geekomancy is an enjoyable romp that is easily forgotten when the last page is read. Comparing it to other works of urban fantasy that have managed to be similar entertaining while also accomplishing more in terms of literary significance is a mistake. Geekomancy can only be enjoyed if you simply go along for the ride and appreciate the nostalgia.

Rating: 3 stars (of 5)

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Drowned Cities (2012) | Book Review

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl was the best debut novel of just about anyone, maybe ever. It was fresh and brilliant with wonderful characters (despite almost all of them being unlikable) and a world unlike anything seen in science fiction. It won the Hugo Award, and Bacigalupi managed to follow that up with a National Book Award nominee and Michael L. Printz Award winner in Ship Breaker, which told the story of a young boy forced to scavenge from derelict ships in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by global warming. The Drowned Cities is that novel’s successor, in that it shares the world and one major character. It is the best work Bacigalupi has ever done.

The Drowned Cities centers around Mahlia, a part-Chinese war orphan living in the D.C. area who had one hand removed by soldiers. Despite her handicap, she works as the assistant for the doctor of her small town, in a region that is constantly ravaged by always changing regimes of violence. The current occupiers are the UPF, but it is hard to believe that one could tell the difference between them and the Army of God or any of the other potential military dictatorships. Life is miserable, and soldiers come through from time to time just to rape and murder for the hell of it. Mahlia is a remarkably strong and wonderful character, who believes that she can escape the horrors of her world despite everything around her being so miserable and so dire that hope is in short supply.

The plot really begins when Mahlia and her best friend Mouse discover an unconscious half-wolf man called Tool. Thinking him to be dead, they try to cut into him to salvage what they can for meat or otherwise, but he awakes and takes Mouse hostage. Mahlia pleads for Tool not to kill her friend, and in exchange promises to go steal antibiotics and other medication from the doctor to help the half-man recover from injuries sustained in a prison break. To go any further would be to spoil, but it is an absolutely amazing story that is sometimes hard to read because of gore and the pure sorrow in every aspect of Mahlia’s situation.

Bacigalupi’s quality of writing is astounding. Both his prose and dialogue are just about perfect, and there are so many moments through the novel that beg the reader to stop and re-read. There’s just so much here and so much power in every part that it gives one the strong urge to run around telling every single person about it. The book may not be for everyone; it is often so depressing that it can be hard to return to. But this novel is so good, so perfect, that it would be a crime if it were not to win just about every award for the genre. Paolo Bacigalupi is absolutely the best writer working today.

Rating: 5 stars (of 5)

Book Review: The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis (2012)

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis
Tor Books, 2012

Rating: B+

The most important aspect of any fiction dealing with war is that the conflict isn’t interesting if the characters of both sides aren’t treated with the utmost care. A handful of archetypal British heroes fighting a group of Nazi cannibals with no depth whatsover is not worth reading; black and white war stories should have died with John Wayne. Ian Tregillis understands this. The characters in The Coldest War, and its predecessor Bitter Seeds, are all very real people, with some flaws and some admirable traits no matter which side of the conflict they are on.

In the case of Klaus, there is a German who was forced into fighting for the Nazis from a very young age after being experimented on and augmented with technology that allows him to pass through walls. Although there is a sadness that he always carries with him, he is well intended despite his upbringing. The other side of the conflict in Bitter Seeds is Raybould Marsh, a proud Brit and intelligence agent. In the time that has passed since the first novel, Marsh’s life has fallen apart and he’s become a borderline alcoholic with severe marital troubles that stem from the loss of a child and the apparent mental disabilities of a second. When the story picks up, Marsh is essentially dragged forceably from the bottle by his country to “battle” the Soviet Union in a re-imagining of the Cold War, teaming up with Klaus and his sister, Greta. Although Greta is a bit lacking in depth, but serves an important purpose in that throughout the novels she uses her ability to see the future to basically be the master of all that is going on. She is a purely terrifying villain throughout.

The “history” part of alternate history has become fuzzy with this novel, as is only natural in a book taking place more than twenty years later in a universe where the British used warlocks to fight superhuman Nazis (and thus ending the war early). It doesn’t really feel like an alternate history novel in the Harry Turtledove sort of way, but is something unique that is brilliantly well-written with some of the most memorable literary characters in recent memory. Although The Coldest War doesn’t have as many amazing single moments as Bitter Seeds, and it takes a bit longer to get rolling, it is a worthy sequel to arguably one of the best science fiction novels of the 21st century.

Review: Railsea by China Mieville (2012)

Railsea by China Mieville
Del Rey, 2012

Rating: D

In a strange, steampunky-world connected entirely by a convoluted railway system, a young man named Sham Yes ap Soorap works with a group of hunters whose job is to take out giant skinless mole-like creatures called moldywarpes. They burrow under the ground and jump out at passersby, leading Soorap and the crew to harpoon them from the relative safety of their trains. Apparently the creatures terrorize the locals, and are useful for their meat and various other typical parts that would be used by hunters.

China Mieville’s greatest weakness and greatest strength is that each one of his novels is completely different from the last, not just in general story but in narrative voice and overall feel. It seems like Mieville painstakingly goes out of his way to reinvent himself every time he puts pen to paper, and in the case of Railsea the reinvention comes across as cluttered, to say the least. Instead of the word “and”, Mieville uses an ampersand throughout the novel, which is explained at some point as being symbolic of the idea of the Railsea as a thing in his world, but instead the strange grammatical decision comes across as extraordinarily amateurish and blatantly pretentious. To compound the agony of the style, Mieville takes a handful of chapters to break the fourth wall as the narrator and pat himself on the back as the writer, as if to say “See how wonderful I am?”

Railsea is a frustratingly bad novel that oozes with pretension and borderline awful prose. Originality is generally a good thing, but there are times to remember that sometimes something has never been done before because it is not a very good idea. The characters in Railsea are completely uninspired and what little plot that is here is barely more than a convenient vessel to push the world the author has created. Although the world is strong, it is the only redeemable quality of an otherwise completely unreadable book. With unlikable characters and a plot that is both meandering and completely tedious, it is hard to see why anyone would enjoy this novel in the least.