Saturday, August 27, 2011

Indie Book Review: The Egyptian

I'm about to make a pretty bold statement here.  Layton Green's The Egyptian is the strongest, best written indie book I've ever read.   Now, it's not my favorite indie book, I prefer a bit more humor in a book, but the basis of pure technical writing skill, on the ability to craft a story and have it hang together, The Egyptian is the best one I've seen so far.

What makes the Egyptian so great?

Let's start with the characters.  Dominic Grey, the leading man, is back from The Summoner, older, and a bit wiser, and ready to start on something new.   He's working for Viktor now as a full time investigator of situations where religion/cults and the real world mix in unfortunate ways.  And, while Dominic isn't stupid by any stretch of the imagination, he is, in this partnership with Viktor, the muscle man.  He does the legwork, the investigation that involves going to scary places and dealing with creepy people, and occasionally showing us that Jason Stratham has nothing on him when it comes to martial arts.  Which brings us to Viktor, who is still my favorite of the crew, who is for lack of a better term, the brains.  Viktor is the Religious Phenomenologist, the guy who actually knows what they're looking for.  Dominic finds the pieces, Viktor puts them together.  New to The Egyptian we get to meet Veronica, who is basically a Bond Girl.  If you've ever read/seen a James Bond story, you will understand her role in the book.  (Look good, move the plot along, have sex with the hero).  Lastly, Jax, also new to the cast, adds an extra layer of brightness to the story with his jaded character and devil may care attitude.  (He put me in mind of a mercenary version of Han Solo.)  These four very different characters are expertly balanced throughout the story to keep the plot running, the tension high, and the reader caring about what happens next.  Getting to spend time with them is a joy.

From there we go to the plot.  The Egyptian is solid.  Each aspect of the book makes sense, each scene flows into the next, there are no moments of wishing someone with a delete button had gotten a hold of certain bits, and no sudden wondering what happened in a given scene.  I had a small complaint with The Summoner, where on occasion it was a little too obvious that the characters were doing things because Green needed them to to keep the plot going.  That never happens in the Egyptian.  All the action, all the motivation, it all flows naturally.  You never see the hand of the author in this story.  The groundwork is properly laid, the middle adds new interests and possibilities, the climax takes care of business, and then we wrap up with a tidy ending.

Wait, you actually want to know what that plot is?  Okay.  On the surface level, it's about returning some stolen property.  Deeper in, that stolen property is a vial of the water of life, a serum that stops people from aging.  Who are the thieves?  An anti-aging biotech firm.  Who lost the vial?  An Egyptian eternal-life cult complete with mummies, who also happens to be an anti-aging biotech firm.  And they're willing to do anything to get it back.  Who are the bad guys?  That's one of the great twists in this story.  And this story has twists, it has turns, and mummies, and a hunchback, and...  I mentioned James Bond earlier.  Well, if James Bond and the X-Files had a love child, this book would be it.

The romance is once again a guy's romance.  But it's a guy's romance with a bit more introspection than I've usually seen in guy oriented books.  I like the fact that Grey is still dealing with the emotional fall out of The Summoner, but willing to move on to new things as well.  It's realistic in a very good way.  (It's also realistic in a way that some women might find exasperating, but that has more to do with how they deal with men, than anything about the book.)

Dialog is well done, competent, but not outstanding.  Call it a B+.  And honestly that just might be a matter of my own taste in the matter.  There's a sort of balance between wit, snark, and stoic (think NCIS) I'm especially fond of, and this book didn't have that.  But what it did have is dialog that works for each character.  There's never a second spent thinking, 'Huh? Why did he say that?'  There's not a single phrase in the entire book that drags you out of character.  And with characters as different as these four, plus the villains, that's a marvelous job.

Like The Summoner, this is a serious book with some dark topics, and Jax was a much needed glimmer of light.  In my previous review I equated The Summoner with 90% cocoa chocolate, very dark, very bitter.  And sometimes you want dark and bitter.  But you can't make it your entire diet.  The Egyptian, were it dark chocolate, would probably come in around 60%.  And for me, at least, this is a welcome change.  I can only deal with so much terrible darkness in a series before it gets too depressing to continue on.  The Egyptian not only gives the characters a break, but it gives the reader one as well.

I am extremely pleased that Layton Green asked me to review The Egyptian.  I look forward to seeing his further works.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Days and Months We Were First Born

"It's the end of the world as we know it... And I feel fine..."

Okay, not literally, but close enough.  I like apocalyptic fiction, and with a mysterious plague, people dying in droves, and society falling apart almost as fast as a roller coaster on the down slide, The Days and Months We Were First Born: The Unraveling certainly qualifies.

I liked The Days and Months We Were First Born: The Unraveling, but I didn't love it.  To some degree it felt like a sketch of a book I could have loved: rough and in need of focus. 

The Unraveling is a quick read.  It comes in at about 150 pages, making it a very short novel or a novella.  In serial fiction the job of the author is to make sure each book has a complete plot arc, but at the same time the book moves the larger story arc forward.  Jim Butcher's Dresden Files is excellent at this.  Burn Notice (a TV show) is fantastic at it.  With The Unraveling, I'm just not sure where the larger arc is going.  Though we get the sense that Martin, the main character, is telling us the story from a vantage point later in time, we don't get enough sense of that later point to have a good idea of what the larger focus of the series is.

The Unraveling could just as easily be called: Escape From New York, because that seems to be the main plot.  We get the set up: almost everyone dies horribly.  We get the baby plot arc: adapt to the new world.  We know there has to be a larger plot arc because it's book one in a series, but beyond Martin survives long enough to tell his story, we don't have much of an idea of what it might be.  I think, if Hunter had stayed with just that arc, and left the reader with only the information that Martin could get for himself, this story would have been a lot stronger.

But he didn't leave it there.  About half way through the story we suddenly break away from Martin and start following a group of scientists.  Why?  I have no idea. Let me get into spoiler territory here, by the end of the story New York City will be blown up in a nuclear blast.  Now, there is no way for Martin to know why this has happened.  So Hunter breaks off from Martin's tale, half way into the story, to start adding the second plot line.  And it's not that either plot line is bad; it's just that there's no real reason for it.  There doesn't seem to be any reason for NYC to blow up.   Ninety percent of the population is dead, more is dying, everything else is devolving into chaos, there's no reason for a spectacular boom.  If it was important to the larger plot arc, we need more information to help us find that.

From a technical aspect of putting words together, Hunter's writing ranges from quite good to shaky.  Martin is telling us the story, and he's alone in a lot of it.  There's a lot of telling.  I like Martin's voice so that's not too much of an issue, but I found myself thinking a bit more showing and less telling would be nice.

When the plot line suddenly jumps away from Martin to follow the scientists, the story gets quite confusing.  Who is telling us this?  Is Martin recounting something he saw?  How?  Do we suddenly have a new omniscient narrator?  Who is the newscaster?  How do they have the power to broadcast and run a helicopter? (Electric power is almost gone, people are living off batteries.  If power is that precious, why are you using it to do newscasts?)  To add to the confusion the scientists are almost interchangeable, so keeping track of which one is which is tricky.  Then throw battle scenes on top of that.  Wrap that all up in the fact that there seems to be no reason to know what is going on, and I ended up thinking diverging away from Martin is just bizarre.

Maybe the problem is that Hunter wasn't quite sure if he was writing an apocalyptic thriller or literary fiction.    If we had stayed with just Martin, this would have been a lot closer to the lit fic side of the spectrum.  If we had met the scientists from the beginning of the book, and a reason for why we were learning what was going on had been there, it would have been a lot closer to apocalyptic thriller.  But the story with how it turned out doesn't have a snappy enough plot for an apocalyptic thriller, and the writing and emotional development isn't strong enough for lit fic.

Which is another off aspect of dealing with Martin.  There's a certain detachment to his tale which seems a bit incongruous with how he tells the tale.  He's too in touch with himself and his emotions to be shocked into numbness, yet his emotional response is too flat for someone experiencing what he's going through.  I'd believe this was Martin telling his father's story.  A story he had grown up with, but didn't personally experience, more than it's Martin telling his own story.

On a two star rating means, "It's okay."  And that's where I am with The Days and Months We Were Born: The Unraveling.  It was okay.  It had the bones to be great, but didn't make it there.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Trad Book Review: Glass Houses: The Morganville Vampires 1

So let's talk a little about young adult paranormal fiction.  Let's talk a little about suspension of disbelief.

For the fantasy writer, suspension of disbelief is your best friend.  Your job as an author is to do such a good job creating your world so your reader thinks, "Vampires, werewolves, things that go bump in the night, sure, I buy it!"

There are lots of ways to go about doing this, but part of the bedrock of a good set up is that it's completely believable.  Part of what makes good horror, good fantasy so compelling is that the non-fantastic parts feel real.

So, the introduction to your world has to have an internal and consistent logic.  It has to make sense.  If you toss the reader out of the reality of your world before you even get to the fantastic/spooky stuff, you've achieved EPIC FAIL.

For example: try to imagine the first episode of the X-files with a twenty-two-year-old, gum snapping, blonde in five inch heels and a tiny tank top instead of the lovely Gillian Anderson in the role of Scully.  Most of us would stop watching there, because we can't suspend our disbelief far enough to wrap our minds around the idea of that woman as a doctor/FBI agent.

And now to tie this to Glass Houses.  Claire, our main character, is a sixteen-year-old wunderkind, who whipped through high school in two years (Although she tells us she got there a year early and ended a year soon, which adds up to three years of high school and two years of middle school, but hey, who's counting?  Oh yeah, Claire, who told us she did it in two years... how smart is this girl again?) and is now in college.

Alas, because her parents are criminally stupid (and apparently enjoy setting fire to money) they sent her to Texas Prairie University, after allowing her to apply to MIT, Yale, Harvard, (and a slew of other high power schools) and getting her acceptance letters to said schools.  Apparently they want to keep their sixteen-year-old baby close to home, but living in the dorm of a notorious party school. 

See at this point I'm already out of the story.  I did finish high school a year early.  Guess what, you can't do that without mommy and daddy's help, which means mom and dad have to be on board with this whole getting a good education thing.  Here's another thing, mom and dad are not going to pay the money ($75 for an application to Harvard alone) to apply to all those schools if they have no intention of letting their little girl attend those schools.  And lets wrap this up with this idea: if you want your baby to be close because you're feeling protective of her, you are not going to send her to live in a creepy party dorm!

In the modern world, if mom and dad want you close after you've graduated high school, they can do this wonderful thing known as let you live at home and take courses online.  The entire MIT catalog is available online.  If mom and dad think you're too young for college, Harvard has this wonderful program that lets you get accepted to school and then defer your attendance for a year.  Schools will work with prodigies and their parents to make life easier for them.  The thing that doesn't happen in the real world these days is mom and dad decide to send their precious little genius to Party U for a few years because it's close to home.

Here's where the discussion of YA fiction comes into play.  There's a problem almost all YA books have to deal with: how to get a young person into situations of danger and adventure without mom and dad jumping into play to keep them safe.  In real life, most kids have the sort of parents who are actually trying to do well by them.  In the YA world there are gobs of orphans, boarding schools, and criminally absent parents because they're needed to make the plot work. 

So, the author wants a plot where Claire has to deal with human adversaries and supernatural ones.  For whatever reason the author wants Claire to be sixteen.  Sending her off to college early was an interesting twist on boarding school, and opens the potential for living off campus and getting into more contact with the supernatural baddies.  She made Claire super smart because that increases friction with the human baddies.

This book was written around 2008.  It appears to be set around 2008 as well.  The level of bullying Claire takes at both high school and college would easily get both institutions sued into bankruptcy.  And in the post Columbine/Virginia Tech world, one might think that possibly, if you are being assaulted by the other students, the kind of violence that involves being tossed down a flight of stairs and left unconscious, that possibly someone would call the cops.  Just maybe.  

But of course, no one does anything like that, giving Claire the motivation to move out of the dorm, and into her new home with her new roommates. 

We didn't even get to the vampires, and I already don't believe this story.  In fact, unless they're pink and sparkly (which I've heard isn't true about this book) I believe the vampires more than I do the set up for this book.  The entire set up is a series of glowing neon plot devices for the purpose of putting the main character into the situation author wants her in.  There is nothing subtle or elegant about the first few chapters of this book.  Nothing that shows any real desire to engage in serious world building on the part of the author.  In short, it's lazy, and has done nothing to make me want to learn more about what comes next.

And so, Congratulations Glass House!  Welcome to your shiny new spot on my Did Not Finish List.