Book Review: The Kept Secret

KeptSecretby Michael D. Pederson


The Kept Secret
Stan Wilczek Jr.
Gateway Press, 308 pp.

I’m generally a pretty harsh critic when it comes to the world of vanity press. In the time that I’ve been writing book reviews (ten years), I’ve only favorably reviewed two self-published books. This brings the count to three.

The Kept Secret is set three years after 9/11. The premise is that Al Qaeda followed their attacks on New York and D.C with a tunnel bombing in Boston and a nationwide hepatitis epidemic in 2004. All while planning a larger bombing. I’m pretty sure it was the sensitive subject matter and not the quality of writing that kept this from being picked up by any major publishers. Wilczek builds off of the post-9/11 fears to create a suspenseful and intriguing story that moves quickly and incorporates some clever cold war conspiracies into our modern-day political climate.


Book Review: We, Robots

Layout 1by Michael D. Pederson


We, Robots
Sue Lange
Aqueduct Press, 98 pp.

We, Robots, a novella, is part of the “Small Paperback Series” from Aqueduct Press. Like Lange’s previous novel, Tritcheon Hash, this novella combines a hearty blend of science fantasy with good old-fashioned, tongue-in-cheek satire.

The story follows (and is told by) Avey, an AV-1 model robot that is purchased as a nanny for a young girl. Like all the best science fiction robots, Avey is a mirror held up to society; as he learns how to function around people we learn more about ourselves. As humanity numbs itself with “pain stoppage” technology, robots are equipped with pain sensors to make them more empathic and to give them greater learning capabilities. It’s fun to watch as the humans become less sensitive and the robots more so. Social allegory can be a bit of a blunt hammer in the wrong hands, but Lange wields it well.

A major focus of the plot is the oncoming Singularity. I think that Lange oversimplified a bit in her description of the Singularity. In her words, it is “that exact instant when artificial intelligence, AI, surpasses biological intelligence.” More fully, the Singularity describes the point when technology begins advancing at an exponential rate due to a superhuman artificial (or enhanced biological) intelligence. To use an example from Lange’s novel: it wouldn’t be the point when robot intelligence grows beyond ours, it would be the point when robots use that intelligence to start modifying themselves and technology to grow beyond humanity. I’m just nitpicking though; Lange cleverly avoids any problems here by having her robots decide not to move past the Singularity. She calls it the “Regularity” instead. I have to give her credit, it’s a nice twist; just because the Singularity is possible, does it have to happen? And her reasoning for not pursuing the advance is extremely plausible—self-interest, the most human of emotions. Good stuff.


Book Review: Crystal Soldier

CrystalSoldierby Michael D. Pederson


Crystal Soldier
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Meisha Merlin Publishing, 336 pp.

I’m always thrilled whenever I find myself at the same convention as Sharon and Steve. I was even more thrilled to receive a review copy of their new book, Crystal Soldier, from Meisha Merlin. And let me tell you, this book did not disappoint. Taking place in the vividly rich Liaden Universe of Lee and Miller (this is actually a prequel), Soldier puts our heroes in quite a sticky situation. The evil sheriekas (a self-evolved offshoot of humanity that are bent on destroying all traces of their human forbears) are collapsing (decrystallizing) entire solar systems out of existence. M. Jela Granthor’s Guard—a genetically enhanced soldier—is sent out to discover how the enemy is destroying planet after planet, and hopefully find a way to stop them. Accidentally thrown together with Cantra yos’Phelium—a pilot dealing in gray market goods with a shady past—along with a batch-grown servant and Jela’s telepathic potted plant (I’m new to this universe myself but gather that this race of trees play a larger part in the story) our heroes are chased across the war-torn Rim, trying to stay one-step ahead of the sheriekas. Sharply written, this sci-fi adventure is sure to please long-time Liaden fans and isn’t the least bit daunting to newcomers. Soldier is Book One of a two-part series and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to see how things turn out.


Book Review: The Dead Walk!

TheDeadWalkby Michael D. Pederson


The Dead Walk!
edited by Vincent Sneed
Die Monster Die! Books, 229 pp.

Ever since George Romero first showed us that zombies could be more than mere shambling corpses—that they are, in fact, a malleable metaphor that can be twisted to reflect different aspects of society—we’ve seen that they can be scary, silly, funny and socially relevant. Die Monster Die! Books’ The Dead Walk! brings us ten new zombie stories that cover the wide range of subject matter that we’ve come to expect from the walking dead. Shockingly, I only found one of the stories not to my liking and of the remaining nine tales I’d judge four or five of them to be instant classics. “The Dead Bear Witness” by James Chambers comes the closest to a Romero-style zombie tale. Set in a prison it injects a unique point of view where (much like Day of the Dead) the zombies are less important than how the people deal with them. Chambers is also represented by the somewhat humorous, often insightful, and downright creepy “Ressurection House.” C.J. Henderson has two stories here as well, one of which, “Crime and Authority,” closes the book on a nicely cynical note. The most daring story though (possibly the boldest and most intriguing story I’ve read in a while) is Robert M. Price’s “The Righteous Rise.” Telling the Resurrection as a zombie story could have gone wrong a million different ways but Price’s take on it is both intelligent and classy without treading into blatant sacrilege. Not only is this book a must-own for the hard core zombie fans but I’d go so far as to say that it may be the new definitive zombie collection.


Book Review: The Fantasy Writer’s Companion

FantasyWritersCompanionby Michael D. Pederson


The Fantasy Writer’s Companio
edited by Tee Morris and Valerie Griswold-Ford
Dragon Moon Press, 280 pp.

Yes, a sequel to The Complete Guide To Writing Fantasy. I won’t dwell on the silliness though. Instead let’s cut to the chase… How’s the book? It’s not the all-purpose reference guide that’s going to revolutionize the world of fantasy writing, but then it’s not supposed to be. What it is is entertaining and pretty darned useful. Like the Complete Guide, the Companion is mostly written by authors from the world of small press publishing, however they’ve added some more recognizable names this time around like Wen Spencer and Will McDermott.

The Companion’s thirteen chapters cover a wide range of subjects including “Developing Alternative Magic Systems,” “Writing for RPG and Media Tie-Ins” and “Writing Fantasy for the Young Reader.” With a different author tackling each chapter there’s a wide range in the quality of advice being given. Most chapters give a useful (if somewhat general) view of their topics, a few only skim the surface, and a couple are downright inspirational to the aspiring fantasy writer. Evo Terra’s section on “Herbalism in Fantasy” provides great tips on creating and naming plants and also gives a thorough laundry list of plants and herbs and how they can be used. And Lai Zhao’s chapter on “Worldbuilding in Asian Cultures” is an in-depth (32 pages) and indispensable starting point for anyone that wants to write an Asian-themed fantasy.

Overall, the book has a tendency to cater more to its authors than its readers—allowing them to reference their own (often obscure) works rather than citing more common fantasy writers (Tolkien, Brooks, Moorcock) when giving examples—but if you’re looking to “add flavor” to your writing this is a great source for new seasonings.

Book Review: It’s Only Temporary

ItsOnlyTemporaryby Michael D. Pederson


It’s Only Temporary
by Eric Shapiro
Permuted Press, 100 pp.

The world is going to end in less than ten hours. A giant meteor will crash into the planet and eliminate all life as we know it. How do you spend your final hours? It’s Only Temporary begins with our hero, Sean, realizing that he needs to be with his ex-girlfriend and ends just before the doomsday event. This is a brilliantly conceived apocalyptic vision that will shock, terrify and amaze you. Sean’s simple three-hour drive across the state to reunite with his lost love becomes a powerful day-long journey of redemption. Along the way he experiences and witnesses the absolute extremes (good and bad) that the human animal is capable of. The narrative is starkly personal and (at times) deeply disturbing. Shapiro pulls of the incredible feat of making you believe that the world is ending without ever once showing you the actual event. Sheer artistry.


Book Review: No Longer Dreams

NoLongerDreamsby Michael D. Pederson


No Longer Dreams: An Anthology of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction
edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, L. Jagi Lamplighter, Lee Hillman, Jeff Lyman
Lite Circle Books; 256 pp.

How best to judge an anthology? Is it as bad as its worst story or as good as its best? If I were to stick to those extremes then this is either a 256-page piece of kindling or one of the best anthologies of the year. (Which of those do you think they’ll quote for their website?) Like everything else though the truth falls somewhere in the middle.

This is an odd bunch of stories. Danielle Ackley-McPhail runs an online writers group and that’s where most of the stories originally came from. Needless to say, it’s a rather uneven collection—there are a few stories that should have had another draft or two before ever seeing the light of day—but there are enough quality stories to make it a worthwhile purchase. Heck, the three (!) stories from John C. Wright are reason enough to go out and buy it. Wright’s got a beautifully clear style that reminds me some of Niven’s best short fiction. Other highlights include humorous bits like Darrell Schweitzer’s “Kvetchula” and C.J. Henderson’s “Wezleski to the Rescue” (originally printed in Nth Degree)—whining vampires and wacky scientists, respectively; Steve Johnson’s brilliantly clever H.P. Lovecraft-meets-E.E. “Doc” Smith pastiche, “The Doom That Came To Necropolis”; the tense science fiction culture clash of James Chambers’ “Law of the Kuzzi” and the beautiful historical fantasy “The Poppet” from L. Jagi Lamplighter. So, for a small-press anthology, this is a fun collection with a little something for everyone.


Book Review: Schism

Schismby Michael D. Pederson


Schism: Part One of Triad
by Catherine Asaro
Tor Books, 395 pp.

For the few people that haven’t had the joy of discovering Catherine Asaro yet, here’s the perfect novel for you to start with. Schism returns to the Saga of the Skolian Empire that Asaro has been developing for ten books now. Fans that have read the previous nine books will be thrilled to learn some more of the back story of the Ruby Dynasty. Newcomers will discover this a thrilling place to begin—the start of the war with the Euban (slave) Traders and the introduction of the Eldrinson family to Imperial affairs. Earlier books in the series have been a bit more physics intensive but this one keeps things a little simpler, more space opera than hard SF, but there is enough here to please fans of both sub-genres. As usual though, it’s Asaro’s strong characterizations and tense but realistic family dynamics—along with a touch of romance—that makes this such a pleasing read. Set primarily on the pre-industrial world of the Eldrinson family, there’s even an element to appeal to fantasy fans. This is easily a book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anybody. Asaro’s already won a Nebula for one of the books in this series and I predict that it’s only a matter of time before she has a Hugo to keep it company. Lois McMaster Bujold had better watch her back.


Book Review: Wilding Nights

WildingNightsby Jack Jeffers


Wilding Nights
by Lee Killough
Meisha Merlin Publishing, 353 pp.

Meisha Merlin is a fairly new kid on the block, having started publishing in 1996. Even so, they have a highly regarded stable of writers at this time: Robert Asprin, Jody Lynn Nye, Janny Wurts, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller to mention just a few. Their catalogue lists four titles by Killough.

Killough writes mysteries about cops, however most of her main characters are not exactly run of the mill. The primary character in Wilding Nights, Allison Goodnight, a homicide detective, has a secret—she and her whole family are werewolves—and her latest case results in a big problem. The mutilated victim shows strong evidence of having been done in by a rogue werewolf, who might be a member of her own clan. The secret of her family and her species requires that she solve this case without revealing to humans—especially cop humans—what the killer is. That revelation could spark humans’ racial memory of her kind and result in another persecution in a long history of persecutions.

Allison is aided by others of her clan who are cops, but hindered by a new partner, Zane Kerr, who at first is excited to be working with the detective with the highest successful conviction rate on the force. Allison’s secretive conduct arouses his suspicions, especially when he realizes that the physical description of the suspect matches Allison’s and many of her relatives.

Wilding Nights is a well-paced read and will keep your attention riveted as the plot unfolds. Werewolves in this story are not all predators, but not quite benefactors. They just want to co-exist alongside humans. Killough has created a species of “volke,” and thought through the process far enough to be able to describe the “shift” from their human guise to their true nature so clearly that you can picture it in your mind. You find yourself siding with the “Were” and rooting for their success. This is the first book I have read by Killough, but I will be looking for her name on the bookshelves from now on.


Book Review: Bride of the Fat White Vampire

BrideoftheFatWhiteVampireby Michael D. Pederson


Bride of the Fat White Vampire
Andrew Fox
Ballantine Books, 429 pp.

Bride is the sequel to Fox’s well-received Fat White Vampire Blues and picks up eight months after the title character, Jules Duchon, transformed himself into a pack of 187 fat white rats. Now, his protégé, Doodlebug, is being coerced by New Orleans’ vampire elite (the High Krewe of Vlad Tepes) to reform Jules in order to help them solve a mystery that threatens to tear apart the city’s already unstable vampire society. When Jules is reconstituted one rat short of a fat vampire he finds he has to team up with an old enemy to find out who is behind the bizarre mutilations of pretty young vampires. At the same time he has his own personal missions of finding his missing rat-part and searching for a way to revive his dead girlfriend. What Fox pulls off here is nothing short of miraculous—Bride is an exciting vampire novel that manages to be funny without compromising the dark gothic mood that we’ve come to expect from vampire novels. The characters—a 450-pound vampiric cab driver, his transsexual sidekick, a young girl obsessed with rats and, to a degree, the city of New Orleans itself—are unique, amusing, and personable without coming across as wacky caricatures. Most importantly, Fox manages all of this without ever falling into the shadow of Lestat. This one’s definitely worth picking up, as well as the first book and any subsequent books in the series.