Book Review: Good Guys

Good Guysby Michael D. Pederson

 

Good Guys
by Steven Brust
Tor Books, 316 pp.

Steven Brust is best known for his (mostly) fantasy Vlad Taltos series. I know him as the author of one of my favorite science fiction romps, Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille (1990), so I was pretty excited to see him venturing into new territory. Good Guys is a straight-up urban fantasy that in many ways reads like a techno-thriller (thauma-thriller?)

Much like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Good Guys is set in a world where magic exists but is kept secret. There are strict rules about how and when magic can be used and two major magic-using factions; one believes it’s ok to use magic for profit the other is quite a bit stricter. Our heroes work for the stricter group (The Foundation) which is run very much like a corporate bureaucracy—expense reports, middle management, red tape, and everything else that goes with that territory.

When low-level employees of their rival organization (the Mystici) start turning up dead by magical means, our minimum wage-earning heroes are called on to investigate. Part mystery and part magic adventure, it’s a fast-paced story that makes for a perfect summertime beach read. A nice light read like this also makes a great starting point for a new series (I’m hoping!). A world where magicians deal with such a mundane work environment makes for one of the most relatable urban fantasies I’ve read. I would definitely love to see more of this world.

 

Book Review: Invasive

Invasiveby Michael D. Pederson

 

Invasive
by Chuck Wendig
Harper Voyager, 329 pp.

Genetically engineered ants are out for blood in Chuck Wendig’s latest thriller, Invasive.

When a body is found in an isolated cabin, stripped of its skin and surrounded by dead ants, FBI consultant Hannah Stander is called in to investigate. The investigation leads her to the Hawaiian laboratory of a billionaire inventor/philanthropist. And then all hell breaks loose.

Who in the lab is responsible for creating the killer ants? What’s their motivation? And can Hannah stop them before the ants are released on the world? It’s a plot that unfolds like a standard Crichton novel (only without the “science is evil” overtones) and reads very much like Jurassic Park with very tiny dinosaurs. The body count is pretty high and a lot of it’s rather gory, the more sensitive readers may find this somewhat disturbing, horror fans will love it though.

As exciting as killer ants are (I grew up in the seventies so I have a soft spot in my heart for stories about killer bugs run amok) the real attraction of the novel is Hannah. Raised by survivalist parents, with a backstory that’s left her scarred and fearful of life, Hannah has a background that makes her capable of dealing with harsh situations and a psychological depth that makes her interesting to get to know. I tore through this novel quickly and seriously hope that it’s just the first of many in a series of Hannah Stander novels.

 

Book Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matterby Michael D. Pederson

 

Dark Matter
by Blake Crouch
Crown Publishers, 340 pp.

As science fiction continues to become more and more mainstream, I predict that we’ll start to see more novels like Dark Matter. From the author of Wayward Pines (Blake Crouch), Dark Matter is one-hundred percent pure science fiction, but written in a very approachable, mainstream fashion. It’s also being marketed as a “Thriller” instead of as an “SF” novel. And I’m fine with that. Because it’s good. Really good.

Crouch’s main character, Jason Dessen, has a good life; he’s a physics professor in Chicago with a loving wife and a teenage son. Jason and his wife both gave up promising careers (he in experimental physics and she as an artist) to raise their son, and they’re happy with their choices and happy with each other but they still sometimes wonder “what if?”. When Jason is abducted one night and shanghaied to an alternate universe (like I said, pure science fiction) he has that question answered for him. Most of the first third of the book is Jason coming to terms with his abduction and the remaining two-thirds cover his attempts to return home to his family. Halfway through Jason’s quest through the multiverse, Crouch writes an important character out of the story—they just wander off and are never heard from again—and I wish we could have had a better resolution for her story line, rather than just using her to merely advance Jason’s story, but that’s my only grievance. All of the characters are well drawn and the plot can’t help but suck you in.

More important though, Crouch addresses the questions raised by the existence of a multiverse: What is home and how do you define “self” in a sea of possible alternate homes and alternate selves? Never settling for the option of “close enough” we see over and over again how our hero becomes his own worst enemy, frequently in frighteningly literal examples. It’s a fast-paced story that has a thrilling twist in the final act that works brilliantly and has a very cinematic feel to it. Highly recommended.

 

Book Review: Forever the Road

smashwords_koboby Michael D. Pederson

 

Forever the Road
Anthony St. Clair
Rucksack Press, 459 pp.

Over the years I’ve built a certain level of expectation for small press and self-published books: A good chunk of them are just flat-out bad; most of them are entertaining stories, if you can just overlook a couple of flaws; and a very very few of them are highly enjoyable reads that surprise the crap out of me.

Forever the Road left me completely gobsmacked. Great concept, fun characters, and beautiful writing.

This is the third book in St. Clair’s Rucksack Universe; part alternate history and part travel adventure with a bit of fantasy and a lot of alcohol. In Forever the Road a bartender, a world traveler, a fatherless child with an ailing mother, and an ancient man of mystery have to save the world from a long-dormant evil.

The traveler, Jay, arrives in Agamuskara, India, with a strange item hidden in his backpack, which is (of course) stolen from him as soon as he arrives in town. Recovering the backpack brings him in contact with Jigme, a teen that’s trying to care for his sick mother; Faddah Rucksack, a man who loves stout; and Jade Agamuskara Bluegold, a talented destiny-dealing bartender who quickly steals his heart. He also learns that the MacGuffin hidden in his backpack has brought him to Agamuskara to fulfill his destiny—destroying an ancient evil that has been resting in the heart of the city but will awaken during an oncoming eclipse and exterminate all life on the planet. Our hero goes kicking and screaming the whole way, believing that he is in control of his own destiny—and he’s correct.

It’s a high-stakes story, told with wit and compassion. My only nitpick is that as a long-time beer snob—and with beer playing an important part of the story—I would have enjoyed things more if the beer info had been more esoteric, rather than the Brewing 101 course of “stout is thick and lager is watery.” But that’s just me. In the end, Forever the Road’s Everest Base Camp is a pub that ranks right up there with Callahan’s and the White Hart as classic science fiction bars.

 

Book Review: The Golden Princess

GoldenPrincessGoldenPrincessby Michael D. Pederson

 

The Golden Princess
by S.M. Stirling
Roc, 420 pp.

Even though this is book number fourteen in the Emberverse series and picks up a few hours after the events of A Given Sacrifice, The Golden Princess is the beginning of a new story arc. We’re now following the third generation of people that populate the world after the Change stopped all technology and firearms from working. Even if you haven’t read any of the previous books, this is a fine starting point; new and established characters, as well as the setting are all clearly introduced in the opening chapters.

Almost immediately, we learn one thing—the world is getting bigger. In previous installments we had seen the Kingdom of Montival spread to cover about half of North America and we had learned the fate of the British Isles. Now Stirling moves to the other side of the globe, introducing characters from Japan, Korea, and Australia and even briefly mentions how things are looking in India.

Sadly though, the story is greatly lacking in plot developments. Right away we learn that the same evil forces that had driven the Cutters in previous books are also controlling Korea and that the Japanese Emperor and his daughter have come to Montival in search of an ancient sword that they’ve seen in their dreams. And then Stirling spends 420 pages in planning an expedition to retrieve the sword—it’s in Death Valley and our heroes will have to travel through the cannibal-infested remains of Los Angeles to get there.

It’s fascinating to watch post-Change Japanese interacting with the Kingdom of Montival, and as a fan of the series I found this to be an enjoyable read, but I really wish that something could have actually happened. That said, I’m sure the next book will be freaking amazing.

 

Book Review: The Emperor’s Blades

emperorsbladesby Michael D. Pederson

 

The Emperor’s Blades
by Brian Staveley
Tor, 478 pp.

Last issue I praised a new fantasy novel (American Craftsmen) for it’s originality in both concept and execution. Today I review a new fantasy novel that has absolutely nothing innovative about it, yet I still enjoyed the heck out of it and for regular readers of this column you know how I usually feel about fantasy. The Emperor’s Blades, by newcomer Brian Staveley, is a traditional epic fantasy and the beginning of what promises to be a lengthy saga.

The story follows the three offspring (two sons and a daughter) of a slain emperor. Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent the past eight years in a distant mountain range studying under an ancient sect of monks. Also for the past eight years, Valyn has been training with the empire’s most elite soldiers, the Kettral. Adare, the daughter, has stayed in the capital city and, upon her father’s assassination, is elevated to the role of Finance Minister. Although we get hundreds of pages of training and character development for Kaden and Valyn, there are only a few chapters given to Adare—mostly dealing with the death of her father and the execution of his assassin. She does, however, have one of my favorite scenes in the novel and ends the story in possession of a key piece of information so I’m hoping that she’ll play a greater role in the sequel. There’s always a need for more good, strong female characters in science fiction and fantasy and I hope that Staveley seizes the opportunity to give us one.

There is (of course) a grand battle at the climax of the story that brings both brothers together and hints at an ancient threat that should serve as the main plot thread for future volumes, however the primary story arc is one of personal growth. We follow both sons through their training and watch as they have to master everything they’ve been learning in order to survive the inevitable conflict at the story’s climax. And that is the aspect of the story that will draw you in: watching the boys learn from their mistakes, accept their losses, and grow into men that can rule an empire. The second book in the series, The Providence of Fire, is due out in January, 2015.

 

Book Review: The Martian

Martianby Michael D. Pederson

 

The Martian
by Andy Weir
Crown, 369 pp.

I don’t think the words “labor of love” have ever been a more apt description of a book than with Andy Weir’s The Martian. The author’s belief in the story and fondness for the main character are absolutely vibrant.

The Martian was originally self-published by Weir in 2012. Since then, Crown has bought up the rights to the book and re-issued it. Ridley Scott currently has plans to film the book with Matt Damon in the lead.

The basic plot is simple: Astronaut Mark Watney is part of an expedition to Mars that has to abort their mission when a massive dust storm threatens to disable their ascent vehicle. As the crew beats a hasty retreat, Watney is struck down by a piece of debris and blown off into the storm, apparently dead. When he regains consciousness he finds himself completely alone on the red planet with no way of communicating with Earth and no hope of a timely rescue.

So, how does one survive on Mars? It’s a great story that draws easy comparison to Robinson Crusoe and Apollo 13 but, to my mind, bears an even stronger resemblance to the classic pre-New Wave science fiction stories of engineers doing what they do best. How do you make water out of rocket fuel? How do you make Martian soil fertile enough to sustain crops? How do you communicate with Earth? Watney overcomes problem after problem and maintains a smartass sense of humor throughout.

It’s impossible to read this without appreciating just how much research went into writing it. This is one of those books that puts the “science” back into science fiction.

If you take my advice and read The Martian, be sure to set aside a weekend for it because you will not be able to put it down once you start.

 

Book Review: American Craftsmen

americancraftsmenby Michael D. Pederson

 

American Craftsmen
Tom Doyle
Tor, 320 pp.

American Craftsmen is the first novel from up-and-coming author Tom Doyle. For me, a lot of the joy in reading a new book is discovering new characters and new ideas and in American Craftsmen you truly feel and appreciate the author’s excitement in making those discoveries with you. Doyle builds an intriguing new world here and seems to be having a ton of fun doing it.

In American Craftsmen Doyle invents a world where magic has secretly existed since the founding of the country. Magic users have secretly worked alongside the United States government and military to keep our country safe. These military magicians—called craftsmen—have their own rules of operation and secrecy that makes them similar to a Special Forces unit so, in a sense, the story reads like a mash-up of Jim Butcher and Tom Clancy (only without Clancy’s verbosity).

One facet of the story’s setting is that different family lineages have different specialties and this first novel pits two of those families against each other in a conflict that climaxes in a no-holds-barred magical battle to determine the fate of the nation. Doyle also cleverly references the works of Poe and Hawthorne to add extra flavor to his secret history of the United States.

Likable (and a few detestable) characters, non-stop action and some of the most original ideas in urban fantasy that I’ve read in a very long time make this a book worth checking out.

 

Book Review: The Given Sacrifice

TheGivenSacrificeby Michael D. Pederson

 

The Given Sacrifice
by S.M. Stirling
Roc Hardcover, 369 pp.

The Given Sacrifice concludes Stirling’s current story arc set within his Emberverse; it’s the tenth book in the series as a whole and the seventh book in the current arc (thirteenth and tenth, respectively, if you choose to count the Nantucket series). He’s also laid the groundwork for a new series set in the Emberverse that kicks off later this year (The Golden Princess) but more on that later.

Fans of the series know by now to expect a grand conclusion to the Cutter’s War, and you get it. No punches are pulled, and we get to see more of all of our favorite characters. It’s no surprise (it’s in the title!) that a major character has to die before the end of the novel—Stirling’s been laying the groundwork for this particular sacrifice since Book One, way back in 2004—and the sacrifice does indeed come about, but not in the way that I expected. So, kudos to Stirling for giving us something unexpected and even managing to pull off a happy ending.

Given Sacrifice does not in any way make for a good starting point for the series; the story draws on way too much accumulated history and character development to make it easily accessible to a new reader. But it’s one of the best series finales I’ve read in a long time. If you haven’t yet, I recommend picking up the whole series.

All in all… excellent closure, great action, fun characters, more of a well-conceived world, and an ending that leaves room for the story to develop into new and exciting directions in the next series.

 

Book Review: Haunted

Hauntedby Michael D. Pederson

 

Haunted
Eileen Maksym
Booktrope, 114 pp.

Haunted follows the exploits of three college students (Steven, Paul and Tara) who spend their free time as paranormal investigators. The novella begins with an AP report about a haunted house in Connecticut, we then jump to a college lecture on how the human brain’s innate ability for pattern recognition leads people to see things that aren’t there. It’s a nice balance of belief versus skepticism that sets the initial tone for the story. I would have like to see a bit more of this rationality during the actual ghost hunt later in the book but it still makes for a strong opening.

Our heroes see the news about the haunted house and are quickly off to investigate. No surprise, this is a ghost story after all. More importantly though, it’s a story about people and relationships and in the course of the investigation we discover that the house isn’t the only thing that’s haunted—Tara is also haunted by events from her childhood. In a clever turnaround the haunted house becomes the “B” story and the investigators are transformed from passive observers to active participants. It’s tough to find an interesting new angle on haunted house stories shifting the focus from the house to the three students makes for a more refreshing story. And like the lecture at the start of the story teaches us, you may see a ghost story at first glance but if you look below the surface you’ll find a richer psychological character study. With ghosts.

Maksym’s strongest skill seems to be getting into the heads of her characters. She gives a believable voice to their hopes and fears, their motivations and their dreams. Fans of the genre know that haunted house stories don’t always have a happy ending—does Haunted? I won’t spoil anything for you, you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out.