Saturday, October 29, 2011

Indie Book Review: Blood of Requiem

I really, really wanted to like Blood of Requiem.  Really.  I respect Daniel Arenson and sort of know him through different online indie writer communities.  His books have gorgeous cover art, and from his comments, I know he's a consummate professional.

Burt, beyond that, Blood of Requiem has weredragons.  Seriously, how cool is that?

So, I was looking forward to this one.  Unfortunately, it really wasn't my cup of tea. I prefer character driven novels with a certain realism to them.  That wasn't Blood of Requiem.

There's a lot of action in Blood of Requiem.  I got about sixty percent of the way through it, and I'm going to guess seventy percent of that is a battle, a chase, or the lead bad guy remembering raping/torturing or actually raping/torturing someone.  Character and plot development are rather thin on the ground.

The lead bad guy, Dies Irae, is EVIL!  And in case we didn't get the idea when we found out he's personally responsible for the almost eradication of an entire species, he's also a serial raping sadist. And we get to spend some time in his head, enjoying the rape and torture of innocents.  They are distinctly uncomfortable scenes.  Very well written scenes, evocative of pure evil, but not exactly comfortable reading.  Not to say that they are especially graphic, this isn't The Human Centipede, but it's still a lot more rape than I want to deal with in my fiction.

I like my bad guys at least vaguely realistic.  In the case of evil overlords, that means the evil overlord has to provide some level of value to his people, or else he doesn't get to be the evil overlord for very long.  Absolute psychopaths can only rule by fear alone for so long (history seems to indicate this is about three years) before someone kills them. Dies Irae has been ruling for ten years, and it doesn't look like he's going anywhere anytime soon. 

Put more plainly: if you want to maintain control, you've got to keep the nobles happy.  Keeping them so afraid that they won't look you in the eye for fear of being eaten alive by baby griffins (No, that's not hyperbole; that scene is in the book.) is unlikely to produce happy nobles.  What it's likely to produce is poison in your cup, a troop of 'loyal' soldiers who put blades in your back, and if that doesn't work, outright insurrection.

Irae came to power through a civil war, which begs another question: how bad were things before?  The 'good guys' were the previous rulers.  They, for obvious reasons, have a very romantic view of their past life, but still, part of running a successful coup involves making sure that your nobles are better off now than they were before.  With constant rape, indiscriminate torture, and years of bloody war, unless things were really bad before, I'm not seeing the nobles going along with this.

I also like it when the characters don't heal up like Wile E. Coyote.  With all the action in this book, obviously people get hurt: often and badly.  But, within a matter of minutes (occasionally hours) they're back up and fighting.  And while I can understand that once or twice in extreme circumstances, this happens over and over.  Maybe, at some point in the book after I stopped reading, we learn that there's a horde of clerics casting healing spells, but as of the point where I stopped, I had to assume that everyone involved had Wolverine-level healing powers, but no one mentions it as out of the ordinary.  The main characters are all Vir Requis (weredragons) so maybe the super healing speed is part of that, but since all but these six Vir Requis were slaughtered in combat, apparently super speedy healing is not a race trait.

So, Blood of Requiem didn't do it for me.  It's well written in a visual sense.  If you want to know what everything looks like, this is a great book.  If you love action-packed books with absolutely despicable villains, this one might be for you.  But by half-way in, I had to give up.  I didn't want to spend anymore time in Dies Irae's head.  It's too dark, too painful a place. I didn't want to go on another chase. I'd already been on more than I could count.  I didn't want to watch another rape.  One would have been more than enough, and I was way past one by sixty percent in.  I skimmed ahead to the end, reading bits and pieces, and saw that the book wasn't going to change.  It wasn't suddenly going to become character driven or realistic. So, I put it aside.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Trad Book Review: A Dirty Job

I'd like to link to one of The Oatmeal comics to start this review of A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore.  Warning, it contains adult language.  (So does A Dirty Job. In fact, if you find the comic too offensive, just cross A Dirty Job off of your reading list.)  Just scroll down to the part where it says How British Accents Sound to Americans.

Back?  Great.  Does that seem like a random link?  Let me explain: Christopher Moore has a writing style I'd call Terry Pratchettesque:  third person omni POV, somewhat random bits of character and background information, genuinely funny situations, a complicated plot that gets all tied up in a nice bow in the end, with a slightly flat finish.  But here's the thing: Terry is British. Chris is an American.

So, A Dirty Job is a lot rougher than anything Pratchett writes.  If Pratchett writes PG work, Moore writes R. Adult language, casual racism and sexism, sexual themes: all of that's in A Dirty Job.

So, you're all warned; no matter how the cover looks, this is not a cute little book.
But it is funny and witty, at times deeply tender and respectful and at times frustratingly coarse.

Here's how reading it went for me: I'd be happily cruising along, deeply enjoying the story, and then the main character would suddenly lay down this out-of-the-blue bomb of racial insensitivity, that frankly felt way out of character.  

While I'm not a fan of racism as a character trait, if its been well written, if the writer has done his work properly and it fully integrated into the character, it doesn't bother me.  There's an Asian character in the book who isn't a huge fan of white people.  She's that way through the entire book.  Her calling the anglos 'white devils' and considering them all insane was in character.  Charlie, the main character, however acts like the average upper-middle class liberal white guy.  Until he suddenly develops what appears to be some sort of racial Tourettes syndrome and begins spouting cringe worthy things.

I fear I'm making this sound worse that it is.  It's not that the things he says are particularly hateful.  They're just horrendously socially awkward and inappropriate.  Maybe that's the point, Charlie isn't the smoothest of operators, but still, it sounded way off to me.

That aside, I really enjoyed the book.  If less than a page and a half of bits of dialog were edited out, this would have been a four star story for me.

The plot: a story of a 'beta male' who is suddenly widowed and left not only with a brand new baby daughter but a new destiny as a collector of souls, was tight, clever, and unique.  Charlie (once again, minus that page of dialog) is a genuinely likeable character.  Moore's treatment of death, dying, and especially hospice workers, is gentle and respectful.  His side plot of all the old Gods of death converging on San Fransisco as Capital D Death rises was well done. 

I just really wish he had restrained himself a bit on the racial commentary.

So, if you've got a thicker skin than I do, or if you want a snappy and fun look death and rebirth and don't mind some coarseness, then have at it.  You'll probably enjoy A Dirty Job.   Otherwise, give it a wide berth, and get some Terry Pratchett.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Father's Child

I've wrapped up The Father's Child by Mark Adair, and even a few days later, I'm not sure what precisely I'm feeling about it.  There were parts that were very, very good.  There were parts where the writing got choppy and problematic.  It hit one of my personal pet peeves, and not in a good way.  It hit one of my best loves, in a very good way.

So, let's start at the very beginning.  What is it about?

A lot of things.  On one level it's a secret society thriller.  Go a little deeper and it's a treatises on power and the use thereof.  It's a study of love: romantic and platonic.  It's a story of friendship.

I don't usually try to describe the plot of a book in a review.  Usually, I try to avoid spoilers, but I'll have a hard time getting into what I really liked, and didn't, without going into the plot.  So if you wish to avoid spoilers, now's the time to skip to the next review.

In a nutshell John Eris Truman is a technological wunderkind.  He's got brains oozing out his ears.  He's also shy and not very good with people.  His best friend, Paul Eastman, is the yang to his yin.  He's outgoing, good with people, and not stupid, but not John's style of hyper-analytical either.  The story opens with their third buddy, George, being kidnapped by a group of exceptionally competent professionals at their bi-annual mid-term bash.  Fast forward two years, and the FBI still has no clue what happened to George.  Paul and John wrap up college and head west, starting anew amid the sunshine and beaches of California.

Then things start to get a bit weird.  John starts to remember details about what happened right before George was kidnapped.  Those details get them noticed by a mysterious organization.  John gets 'kidnapped' and then 'rescued' and spends a few months in the care of his new friend, Sam, his 'rescuer.'  They spend hours talking about the fate of the world.  We learn how John has always felt a deep need to make the world a better place, a deep responsibility to better humanity.  And throughout this he's having some sort of religious/psychic visions (daymares he calls them).

Meanwhile, Paul is looking for his friend.  He's aided in this endeavor by Julia; an ex-CIA member, hired by Susan's (more on her in a bit) father as head of his security, in charge with fighting the mysterious organization, called The New Dawn; and Susan, long time girlfriend/love of John.  Julia explains to them the New Dawn is a super-secret cabal with tentacles in every echelon of power.  They have a vision of the good that they will do whatever is necessary to achieve.  Susan's dad has been fighting them, and in retaliation, they kidnap kids dear to him, like George, and now that he's found out about it, John, and as soon as they can get their hands on him, Paul.

Eventually, of course, Paul finds John, and it turns out the New Dawn is behind all of it.  Julia's a member.  (It's hinted Susan's Dad is, too.) And once a mystical/technological ceremony; involving not just implanting a computer chip into John's brain, but a necromancer, three-hundred-year-old-blood, and a computer system that can rule the world; takes place, John will find himself a shadow king of Earth with Paul, Julia, and Susan as his highest counsel.

Over the course of this, we learn that The New Dawn is not all puppies and sunshine.  Once John takes over he really will have the power to make the world a better place.  But some absolutely horrific things had to happen to get him that power.  If you can, imagine a hybrid of the Bene Gesserit, The Illuminati (Wilson and Shea's version), and a smattering of Cthulu, you'll have something that sort of gives you an idea of The New Dawn.

So, with that set up, we run into my pet peeve: sloppy moral thinking.  Adair tells us that John really will have the power to make the world a better place.  We aren't talking Hope and Change here, where the words sound good, but very little actually happens.  We're talking about eradicating poverty and disease.  We're talking end of war.  Adair also tells us that John and The New Dawn will become one organism.  So, even if horrible things had to happen to get John the power to make the world a better place, they do not have to continue happening because John, by will alone, can wield this power, and there's no reason he has to continue in those plans. 

Basically, this is the Spiderman moment: with great power comes...  Nothing.  With an immensely powerful organization capable of changing the world, John, Paul and Susan decide to destroy it.  Sure, they could have saved the lives of billions of people, destroyed hunger, ended disease, stopped war, but The New Dawn was involved in some horrific things to get them that power, so they used John's access to kill it.

Basically Peter Parker, upon noticing the research facility that created the spider was also doing absolutely evil genetic research, decided to set fire to it, stay a college student, majoring in journalism, and eventually became an investigative reporter.  The web slinger never sees the light of day.

And this is where I, as a reader, start banging my head against the wall.  I get the point of where Adair was going.  I understand his play on turning away from the corrupting influence of almost infinite power.  The problem is, he didn't set up the New Dawn or John in such a way that the reader comes away impressed and relieved that John stepped back from the power.  Yes, the New Dawn is immensely creepy.  But John is an immensely good character. A character who, with almost limitless power and in an absolute frothing rage, gives the man who made him that angry a black eye, and then stalks off in a huff.  John is basically a Paladin. And he has complete and utter control over The New Dawn.  So instead of Darth Vader being seduced by the power of the dark side and turning away from it, all I was left with was a sense of the immense loss of opportunity.  Basically, John needed to be a whole lot darker for this plot to work convincingly.

Since we're already on the negative side, let me talk a little about the writing as well.  For the most part the story is well written.  Then we get to the climax of the book.

As an author there are two parts of the book you want to absolutely nail.  The beginning because that's where you attract your reader, and the climax because, well, it's the climax.  Adair did a fine job with the first 90ish percent of the story, then we get to the climax and the writing begins to feel rushed.  He starts bounding over details that would have been nice to see, though he does have John remember some of them later in a flashback. Which is remarkably unsatisfying.  He begins switching point of view rapidly, which isn't necessarily a deal breaker for me.  It's a good technique for building tension and giving us both story lines, but both of his POV characters are in first person.  Now, most of the time this isn't an issue.  Adair has done a good job of giving both characters very distinct voices, so figuring out who is who takes maybe a sentence or two tops.  But when you're flipping back and forth every few paragraphs, and it takes a line or two to figure out whose head you're in, it's more distracting than entrancing.

Then, right as the climax is drawing near, he tosses in a twist that I was expecting, but hoping he'd restrain himself from doing.  He didn't set it up properly to have the sort of punch it needed, so it fizzled.  Like with the decision to destroy New Dawn, I could see what he was trying to do, but it needed a few extra pages of background and tension building to really pull off.

Okay, enough of the stuff I didn't like, let's talk about the good stuff. 

Character voice: Adair absolutely nailed it.  John and Paul have distinct voices, both of which flow naturally, use words convincingly, and make me like the characters.  I'd be happy to have both Paul and John as friends.  They are fully rounded, vibrant characters.

Humor: once again Adair does a great job with this element of the story.  The Father's Child could have been soul-suckingly grim, but it wasn't because of how well Paul is written.  He's funny, occasionally goofy, but not so much that you want to slap him.  He's a bit of a light-weight as a thinker, but it's an element this story badly needed.  If you've ever seen NCIS, he'll put you in mind of DiNozzo. 

The relationship between John and Paul.  This is something I love to see in a book: a well-written, convincing, deep male friendship.  Usually in thrillers men relate to each other in terms of killing one another or partnering up for the duration of the mission.  Sometimes there's a sidekick as well, whose main purpose is to provide comic relief.  Now, while it is true that Paul is there for comic relief, he's way past the 'sidekick' role.  He's a fully defined protagonist in his own right.  And between them is a relationship worth exploring.  A friendship that feels real, intimate, yet fully masculine as well. 

Lastly, Adair is handy with his visual imagery.  While in Paul's head he's funny and witty, in John's he's intensely visual, seeing and describing things in detailed shades of beautiful language.

All of which is why, five days after finishing the book, I'm still not sure if I liked it or disliked it.  I know I'm frustrated.  I know Adair can write.  I saw him do it.  I read it.  But then the climax hits and the prose goes all wonky, and the penultimate scene of the book doesn't happen until a flashback at the end.  Which made me a very unhappy reader.  But it's got a great friendship, and some wonderful characters, and I really liked the use of visual imagery.  Which made me a very happy reader. 

On, two stars equals it's okay.  And I think that's where I'm going to leave The Father's Child.  I have high hopes that Mark Adair's further adventures with the written word will be excellent.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Society of Pirates

Let me start this review by getting something out in the open.  I know David Twiddy.  We're Facebook friends.  He graduated college the year before I got there, and we have several friends in common.  So, although I've never met David in person, I like him.  I have a feeling that, had I gotten to college a year sooner or had he stuck around a year later, we probably would have been friends.  I should probably also add that he did not ask me to review his book.

So, I may not be perfectly objective in this review.  But I will be honest.

And honestly, I really enjoyed The Society of Pirates.

The Society of Pirates is somewhere between a swashbuckling yarn and historical fiction.  It pays more attention to the realities of life among the pirates and the attitudes of the times than the traditional swashbuckling tale, and is a little lighter on the details of geography and culture than a traditional historical fiction.  The plot is a somewhat basic pirate story: head off in search of buried treasure and deal with the black-hatted (or in this case lipped) nemesis before he deals with you.  The details: a hull full of Jesuits, a safe haven with a natural philosopher and his trained monkeys, and Spanish-nobleman pirate hunters, are all new.

In relation to the plot the story is a bit loose.  In a tight story each aspect of the story moves the plot forward.  Bits of Society fill in character, give us depth of world, but don't necessarily move the storyline forward.  Though I don't think a sequel is in the offing, it does read quite a bit like the first story in a series.  Basically, there's a lot of good world and character building here, probably a bit more than was strictly necessary for the first book, but it's a good foundation for series of tales.

I'm often frustrated by the division between YA and adult fiction.  Usually the dividing line is the age of the main character; an adult main character means a book isn't YA fiction.  All of the characters in The Society of Pirates are adults.  Yet with a snappy storyline, fun characters, minimal adult language, minimal explicit violence, and no sex, I'd be more than comfortable giving this book to any ten-year-old who likes pirates and wants to stretch his reading skills.

The history hit a sweet spot for me.   Dave explored on the rift between the Catholics and Protestants, Spain and England, and the freebooting multi-culture of the pirate world.  One of the things modern Americans often forget is that once upon a time 'white' was meaningless in regards to race and Christian meant very little in terms of religious harmony.  I'm always happy to see a realistic treatment of race and religion, especially in stories where it's not vitally important to the plot.  It shows the author was paying attention and doing a good job of setting the scene.

Dialog.  I've said it before.  I'm sure I'll say it again.  I'm a sucker for a great dialog.  And not only is the dialog tight and witty, it's in dialect and well done.  Well done dialect is one of the most difficult skills for a writer to develop.  Most of us have a hard enough time just getting distinct voices for our characters, let alone trying to capture the phonetic spellings of the different speech patterns of our characters.  Dave didn't just write dialect.  He didn't just do it well.  He did four distinct dialects.  Pirate English, Scots, Spanish, and the traditional American English of the narrator.  My mind boggles at the work involved in pulling that off.  I know I couldn't do it, and I've seen very, very few other writers do it well. 

So, all in all, I'm very pleased with The Society of Pirates.  Go give it a read, or get a copy for the pirate-loving-ten-year-old in your life, and spend a little while in the company of pirates.