by Michael D. Pederson
Unfriendly Persuasion: A Tale From the Arbiter Chronicles
Steven H. Wilson
Firebringer Press, 428 pp.
Homage can be a very fine line to walk sometimes. Lean a little too much in one direction and you’re a cheap knockoff; too much in another direction and you run the risk of becoming a parody of the original. In Unfriendly Persuasion: A Tale From the Arbiter Chronicles, Steven H. Wilson toes that line in a mostly successful manner. If you’re not familiar with the Arbiter Chronicles (there’s also a long-running audio drama and a previous book, Taken Liberty), they’re set in a very Star Trek-like universe with a Confederation, a Confederate Navy, and an ongoing war with a hostile race of aliens from the Qraitian Empire. Anyone reading this book will clearly see the giant Roddenberryish blueprints underlying the structure of Wilson’s creation. Mostly what you’ll see though is a love for the type of stories that Roddenberry told, told by someone that brings their own personality and ideas into the mix, resulting in a loving homage to classic space opera (with a heaping dose of modern sexuality thrown in for good measure).
Unfriendly Persuasion does not follow directly on the heels of the previous book, instead it picks up shortly after the conclusion of an ongoing storyline from the audio drama. We get a nice quick-moving summary of events that brings the readers up to speed without making them feel that they’ve missed anything important. The early chapters that transition us from the events of the audio drama to the main plot of the book are well-paced and have some brilliantly funny bits in them (although the comedy feels just slightly out of place in comparison to the rest of the book) and in no time at all we’re well into the next crisis for the crew of the Titan.
The Titan and it’s crew are sent to the distant planet of Eleusis, a strategic military asset that has been settled by a colony of Quakers who have peacefully welcomed members of the Qraitian Empire to settle with them as well. Our heroes are tasked with the mission of sniffing out any Qraitian spies and to close off the border to Confederation Space. To complicate matters, a powerful entity that the Eleusians believe to be God is protecting the colony. Anyone even slightly familiar with classic Star Trek will figure out pretty quickly where the story is heading, but the interpersonal conflict amongst the crew of the Titan and the moral dilemmas that they struggle with (side with the pacifistic colonists or stay loyal to the bureaucracy that they work for) proves to be the real meat of the story.
It’s a fast-paced, exciting romp of a story that will be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone with a fondness for classic science fiction. My only real criticism is that Wilson clearly loves his characters, and seems to jump through a few too many hoops to ensure that nothing overly bad happens to any of them before the final curtain falls.
Scary Tales of Scariness
by Brian Koscienski & Chris Pisano
Fortress Publishing, Inc., 246 pp.
It’s great when you are an author with a huge publishing company that can get your books reviewed and get the word out there about your talent and creativity.
This review column is for the other authors and their work: the ones who write for small publishing companies and need to network and promote themselves. Their novels may not be hot off the presses, but many are worth adding to your book collection.
There are some horror novels out there that are serious, dark and scary. That look into the inner workings of man and the evil inside as they fight their inner demons.
This is not one of those novels.
Scary Tales of Scariness is a collection of stories about a pair of drunken reprobates who find themselves face-to-face with some of the best B-horror movie monsters ever! Werewolves, zombies, vampires, ghosts, la chupacabra, and ten other horror staples torment our heroes as they stumble their way through fifteen different hilarious tales of insanely hysterical horror.
The two main characters—whose names and visages are those of the authors—have this great back and forth conversational style that takes the reader quickly through a roller coaster of bantering, insults, action and insanity that leaves you happily breathless (and sometimes a little giggly) at the end of each story.
But be forewarned: you will be craving a few pitchers of beer by the time you reach the end of the book (“The 64 oz kind; Not the wussy 48 oz kind.”)!
by Lucy Arnold
Roc Books, 481 pp.
When I finished reading Changes, my first thought was, “Wow. Now how is he going to top that?” The climax of the previous novel in The Dresden Files amped up the power levels and put Harry in epic territory, in terms of deed and infamy. Butcher’s answer to this conundrum is Ghost Story, a novel that successfully follows up the climactic action of Changes by being a completely different kind of novel, its drama psychological and its heroes unlikely. Harry is at the center of the struggle, but his ghostly condition, a consequence of being shot dead at the conclusion of Changes, forces him to slow down, to think before he acts, and to reflect on his past and the choices he made in it.
As much as some of my favorite characters, like Molly, Murphy, and Butters played crucial roles in this newest offering in the series, I began to despair that I would see Harry’s best sidekicks: Mouse, Mister, and Bob. Hang in there: all three make appearances, of varying lengths. And nostalgic as I was at moments for the feel and the familiarity of the earlier books in the series, I give Butcher nothing but credit for shaking things up so viscerally. We readers, like Harry, lost a home, friends and family, and even a body, but this literally spiritual journey sets Harry up as a more complex, more likeable, and more believable hero than he’s ever been before. In short, Butcher nailed the nigh impossible task of following up Changes with something even better.
Hurry up on the next book, Jim!
by Michael D. Pederson
Lore & Disorder: The Hell’s Detective Mysteries
Padwolf Publishing, 221 pp.
Lore & Dysorder collects six of Patrick Thomas’ Hell’s Detective stories together (four have been previously published). Yes, this is another book in Thomas’ Murphy’s Lore series (over a dozen and counting), but don’t let that intimidate you. All you need to know is that in the Murphy’s universe belief = power; gods with the best press agents do really well in this world.
In this branch of the series the main character is Negral, an all-but-forgotten Sumerian deity who works as Hell’s chief of police to maintain a certain level of his former glory. The stories pit him against renegade demons looking to escape their afterlife and fellow demon lords looking to expand their power. As always, Thomas spins a good yarn—noir in Hell, with a hefty dash of humor. There’s also a nice character arc woven amongst the stories that makes the entire collection read more like a novel.
My one complaint—and you see this a lot in the Murphy’s series—is that Thomas uses his more powerful characters as deus ex machinas. It would have been nice to see how Negral would solve certain problems if the regulars at Bullfinche’s Pub were incommunicado for a bit. Still though, a fun take on the paranormal detective genre.
by Michael D. Pederson
by Arthur Graham
Yeah, no publisher listed. You know what that means… The dreaded self-published effort. With that in mind, I flipped open the book, planning to give it my courtesy 50-page trial before tossing it in the to-be-recycled pile. And yet…
I got drawn in.
It’s definitely not a book that everyone will relate to, but there are people out there that will appreciate it. Graham takes on big topics like sexuality, politics and religion but does so in a very non-linear, stream-of-conscious type of rambling. In that sense, it reads a lot like Naked Lunch-lite. Emphasis on “lite.” There’s no way that anyone writing in the style of William S. Burroughs could have the same impact today that he achieved fifty years ago. However, what Graham does achieve is still quirky, strange, witty and slightly obscene but enjoyable. There’s not much in the way of plot or a story arc, but Editorial does stick to consistent themes, frequently looping back on themselves like the Orobourous that Graham references throughout the story. And at a mere 136 pages it’s a good book to have at hand for your next rainy afternoon.
by Michael D. Pederson
by Michael Amos
Samhain Publishing, 220 pp.
Michael Amos’ Homeland ranks as one of the more interesting small-press offerings I’ve read so far this year. It’s a fun story that cleverly blends satire and science fiction adventure with a dry, witty British sensibility.
The story takes place in a massive, enclosed shopping mall somewhere in Iowa. Homeland is the paranoid (and possibly malfunctioning) AI computer system that’s responsible for monitoring mall security. When Security Officer Tracy Higgs wakes up in the medical center with no recent memories he has the following clues to work with: He has absolutely no memory of the mall, terrorist activity is at an all-time high, the mall is suffering from frequent brownouts that can’t be discussed (voicing distrust in Homeland is equal to terrorist activity), and nobody ever leaves the mall. Higgs ends up walking a tightrope—investigating Homeland while not raising her suspicions and having him executed as a terrorist.
The mall and Homeland embody a very British satirical view of America’s Patriot Act-era when security seemed to be more important than individual rights. I only wish that this viewpoint had been presented with a touch more humor (sorry, humour). Perhaps a little more Douglas Adams and a bit less Phillip K. Dick would have helped. Conversely, although more British humor would have helped, less British dialogue was also needed. Supposedly American characters using very English slang (“bloody,” “knackered,” “wanker”) disrupted my sense of belief in a couple of spots. But that’s just me picking nits.
There are a couple of intriguing twists near the end of the story that played out a lot better than I expected them to. In fact, I would like to see the author expand on some of those concepts in future novels.
by Michael D. Pederson
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Hadley Rille Books, 260 pp.
I was very excited to receive a review copy of Buffalito Destiny in the mail recently. It’s the first Amazing Conroy novel by Lawrence Schoen. There were, however, two previous chapbooks which featured the Amazing Conroy which I can proudly say I was the first to review (Nth Degree #8, December 2003).
For anyone that missed the chapbooks: Conroy is a former stage hypnotist that now runs a multi-national corporation that specializes in leasing buffalo dogs. Buffalo dogs are an alien species resembling tiny buffaloes that can eat anything and fart oxygen as a bi-product. As enjoyable as the chapbooks were (I do still recommend looking them up, available through SRM Publishers) the novel stands on its own quite nicely. Schoen gives us a catchy opening chapter that establishes Conroy’s beginnings as a hypnotist before jumping into the main action. And jump he does. The central plot involves meddling aliens, a radical isolationist terrorist group, and plenty of pro-earth green activity. It’s a fast-moving story with plenty of wicked humor that reminds me a lot of the classic science fiction I read growing up. On top of all that, Schoen drops hints at a much bigger, fully realized future that I’d like to know more about: New New Jersey? And a major chrono-schism in what used to be the state of Texas could be a whole novel in its own right. Brilliant, fast-paced storytelling with eccentrically oddball characters make this a jump-off-the-shelf must read.
by Michael D. Pederson
Peter & Max: A Fables Novel
by Bill Willingham, Illustrated by Steve Leialoha
Vertigo/DC Comics, 368 pp.
I’ve been hearing plenty of good things about Willingham’s Fables series for DC Comics’ Vertigo line. My comic collecting got waaaay out of hand over the years though and I’ve since limited myself to only picking up trade paperback collections and graphic novels. Even so, I still haven’t gotten around to purchasing any of Willingham’s series yet. So when a new novel came out set in the Fables universe, it seemed like a great place to get started. I was also lucky enough to get a copy of it for Christmas this year (thank you Lucy!).
The back story: Imagine that all of the tall tales, fables and fairy tales that we grew up with have some basis in reality. They’ve been handed down to us over the years and are usually cleaned up and Disneyfied, but deep down there’s a grain of truth behind each and every one of them. Now, in the present, the genuine personalities behind these stories are living amongst us, hidden away in their own communities.
Peter & Max gives us the true story behind the Piper family—Peter Piper; his brother Max, better known as the Pied Piper; and Peter’s wife, Bo Peep. The backstory here turns out to be one of sibling rivalry; Max is insanely jealous of his more talented brother Peter and longs to possess Peter’s magic flute, Frost. The rivalry and pursuit span several centuries and crosses several worlds, culminating in a showdown between the two brothers in the modern world. Along the way we get to tour the hidden community of the Fables and go behind the scenes of several classic children’s stories. Willingham’s versions of these fairy tales are not necessarily written for children (they tend to be quite dark, though always with some humor) but they definitely appeal to the little child still tucked away inside of each of us.
by Michael D. Pederson
Testing the Prisoner
Firebringer Press, 194 pp.
I won’t beat around the bush, I’ll come right out and say it: I enjoyed about half of this book. It started off strong. The main character, Daniel Masenda, is the mayor of a small town in Virginia and has a pretty good life. He also has a troubled past. Abandoned by his father at an early age, he was raised by his mother who vented her fears and worries on him, resulting in a mentally and physically abusive childhood. On the eve of Masenda’s mother’s death he begins to experience strange visions. Every mirror he looks in reflects a tortured and traumatized version of his current self and he keeps catching fleeting glimpses of a mysterious child when he’s out in public.
It’s pretty obvious, even to Masenda, that the child figure represents his innocence and the mirror images represent his traumatized psyche. And for the first half of the book we’re kept guessing as to whether or not our hero has lost his marbles. The tension continues building, including an encounter with a therapist who confirms that these haunting images are a manifestation of his troubled past and his need to forgive his mother. It makes for a pretty good psychological thriller as Masenda battles his inner demons, all while trying not to let his problems become a political liability.
And then, just over halfway through the novel, it’s revealed that the twisted reflection in the mirror is an actual demon that wants to claim Masenda’s soul. (Is that really the best motivation we can come up with for demons?) At this point all metaphor and allegory go out the window, to be replaced by a mind-numbingly cliched literalism. After this revelation the novel unfolds along the lines you expect it to. There is, of course, the requisite battle for Masenda’s soul and a reconciliation with the ghost of his mother. The only event in the latter half of the story that connected with me as a reader was an epilogue where Daniel starts to build a new relationship with his father. Yeah, I’ll take character-driven stories over the supernatural every day of the week.
by Michael D. Pederson
K. A. Bedford
Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 367 pp.
Hydrogen Steel, from Canada’s Edge Publishing, is a great example of science fiction mystery done right. Right away we’re introduced to the main character, Suzette McGee, a homicide detective turned private investigator. I have to assume that the name “McGee” is Bedford’s tip-of-the-hat to John McDonald’s classic Travis McGee series. And just like McDonald’s McGee, anyone that crosses paths with Zette (friend or foe) tends to end up worse for wear.
There’s no slow build here, Bedford starts the ball rolling right away. McGee receives a call from an android who’s been accused of murder and wants her to help prove his innocence. Oh yeah, and he knows a secret that McGee has never told anyone—she too is an android. McGee’s client is killed before she can meet him, and her house is broken into and burned down by another android that looks exactly like Zette McGee. The assaults on our hero never slow down as she pursues leads across human-occupied space looking for answers to a mystery that brings her up against her own past and into a war between rival AIs with super-human abilities. At a few points the action seems to be too big and it feels like our heroes are being pulled along by a plot that is rushing to a climax. But overall this is an exciting mystery where the puzzles and threats continue to escalate and, in the end, delivers a solid conclusion that’s layered with serious, thought-provoking science fiction concepts.