Tag Archives: fiction

Review: Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt

Aftermath - Life DebtAftermath – Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Looking over other reviews of this book, it seems folks are very hot or cold on “Life Debt.” As the second book in the new Aftermath trilogy, “Life Debt” has a lot to prove. We’re past the point of being able to say “well, this is an introduction to a brand new expanded universe, so give it some time.” At this point, we need to start seeing some payoff. The question is; do we?

Yes. And no. Man, this book is all over the place.

First, I have to say; I really can’t stand reading fiction in the present tense. I’m sure this isn’t the first book I’ve read in the present (pretty sure Aftermath was like that too, though I listened to that one on audio, so it wasn’t as distracting), but man, it was a problem here. My attention kept sliding off the text; I likened it to the feeling of stepping on a slick rock in a stream. I just could not stay on the page. Present tense. Not a fan. Let’s move on.

There are some amazingly good things here, even so. Let’s talk about Han Solo. I’m not sure whether author Chuck Wendig (who seems like a really cool guy, I follow him on Twitter and usually like his content there) watched Harrison Ford’s entire body of work on DVD repeatedly or if Disney let him follow Ford around for a month with a tape recorder or what; but when it comes to Han Solo’s dialogue, Wending FUCKING NAILS IT. And he nails it so well that it’s made me realize just how much previous authors struggled with Han’s voice. Wendig’s Han sounds like movie Han. It’s incredible. It makes me wish I’d listened to this on audio. I still might anyway.

Wendig’s original characters are back and I like them, especially Sinjir, who adds a good amount of snark every time he shows up. But here’s where “Life Debt” runs into a rather strange problem and I’m not sure it’s one anybody could have predicted or could do anything to fix.

I read my first Star Wars novel in 1994 (I think). It was only a few years into this idea of there being such as thing as an “Expanded Universe.” The prequels had yet to be announced, ditto the “Special Edition” of the original trilogy and the feeling at the time was that the novels were going to be Star Wars going forward. And I read them all and devoured them, and I promise you, this is not going in the direction that you most likely think it is.

This is not nostalgia for the old EU. I still have all my old Star Wars books. I’ve gone back and paged through them as an adult. You know what? A lot of them are fucking terrible. Absolutely awful. There are gems there, but they are few and far between (no surprise, Timothy Zahn’s work stands out as a solid gem). So it’s not as though I’m nostalgic for the old EU.

But there’s this weird feeling that results; the fact that the old EU is there and that it formed at a more impressionable age for me, and the fact that there’s just so damn much of it, all that contributes to a feeling that it’s “what’s real.” And that makes a lot of Aftermath feel like, well, fan fiction, for lack of a better term. I keep having this feeling that “Rae Sloane” can’t be the person who tries to pull the Empire together, because that role was supposed to go to Thrawn or Daala (even though I hated Daala). I know that Disney owns Star Wars now, I know that “canon” (which is a term I don’t like anyway) is whatever the creative director of the IP says that it is, I know that all of this will tie into the new movies eventually, I know, I know, I know. And yet. I feel like I’m reading fan fiction. Fan fiction written by a professional, mind you, and even with the annoying present tense, Wendig on his worst day is better than the atrocity that was the last original EU novel “Crucible.” Even so, the feeling persists.

We’re talking about fictional universes and yet, my mind wants to draw a distinction between the “real fiction” and the “pretend fiction.” Even being aware of it isn’t enough to stop the feeling. It’s very odd.

It might be that the new stuff will continue to accrue and eventually supplant the old EU. Maybe it’s just a question of time and the amount of content. I’ll be interested in seeing where it all goes.

So, should you read “Life Debt?” I’d say yes. It’s a good book, with great moments, and a few problems. But this is Star Wars now and there’s a lot more to come. I think it’s worth sticking around to see how it goes.

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Review: The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not one who tends to pick up YA novels too often, but every once in a while I get a recommendation from a colleague and it sparks my curiosity enough to dip my toe in the waters for a while. It’s interesting, because I know that the YA market is very hot right now among adult readers and especially among librarians and since every single person I know is a librarian, you can see how this sort of thing happens from time to time.

So, the book itself. For me, there were some great bits, some okay bits, and some ‘meh’ bits. I’m not much for the YA romance angle, especially the “girl with a crush on one boy who is liked by another.” There’s a good bit of mystery about the “Waves,” what they are, what they will be, and what the titular “5th Wave” actually is. I also enjoyed the speculation early in the book about what the “Others” actually were and there’s a good bit of tension regarding just how, well, alien they are.

There are multiple points of view throughout the book and they shift around often enough that it was, at times, tricky to keep track of who I was reading. A few times I started in on a chapter and thought it was from one character’s point of view, only to realize that I was wrong a few pages in. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that breaks a narrative for me, but it’s . . . inelegant. I liken it to a transmission that clunks whenever you shift gears. It still works, but you notice it when you’d prefer everything to be smooth. It’s also the kind of thing that would be easy enough to fix; slap a Game of Thrones-style chapter header “Chapter 5: Cassie,” for instance, and you’d clean that right up.

Regardless, overall, I enjoyed the book. I like aliens, I like invasions, I like dystopias, and I like survival; there’s a good amount of each here. I’m less interested in teenage romance and the angst therein, but I recognize that this genre has certain conventions that are quite popular, so I’m not convinced that it’s bad. It’s just not to my taste. Your mileage may vary accordingly.

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Review: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's SyndromeUnlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fun fact: the copy that I read was part of a limited print run of 1500 copies, all of which were numbered and signed by the author. Mine was 1384, which found its way to the King County Library System’s collection. Anyway.

This book is a companion novella to the novel “Lock In” and as such, it’s a slim, quick read. And you know what? That’s a goddamn shame! I enjoyed “Lock In” quite a bit . . . but “Unlocked” is something really special and it manages to hit all the right buttons in my brain.

I attribute this largely to its format, which is entirely done in an interview style of various individuals discussing the spread of “Haden’s Syndrome,” the effect which causes the “Locked In” condition that sets up the rest of the world. This interview style is very, very reminiscent of “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” by Max Brooks, although without the zombies.

There’s something powerful in telling a story entirely through interview, which I suppose might be why interviews as a thing are reasonably popular. But fictional interviews are even better, because you’re not limited to how people actually talk, but can craft interesting, narrative driven responses that paint an entire world piece by piece. It’s considerably more interesting, which might be one of the reasons I never pursued a major in Journalism.

This novella was released before “Lock In” was published, so if you haven’t read either yet, do yourself a favor and read this one first. I’m more than willing to imagine that some of my concerns about the full novel would have been assuaged had I actually done things in the proper order. Even if you’re not planning on reading the full novel, “Unlocked” is an interesting little book that will occupy your mind far longer than it takes to get through it. Always a good thing, in my opinion.

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Review: Lexicon

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t realize the “thriller about words” could be a genre, but I’m definitely on board. While most people recommend and remember Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” because of the cyber-punk and cyberspace elements, that book was really more about words and the idea of words as being able to have this viral programming effect on humans. For the nerd in your life who got into THAT aspect of “Snow Crash,” you’ll definitely want to recommend “Lexicon.”

It’s not a perfect book, but there’s a lot to love here. The author does a very clever bit of work with a dual narrative that moves around in time, but never actually states the time/date or any sort of “Then/Now” chapter notation. It’s up to you to figure out how the narrative pieces together, which you can do from context and feels incredibly rewarding as a result. I like it when books and authors treat their readers as very clever and able to figure things out; this is something else that author Max Barry and Neal Stephenson have in common and I approve.

The book is at its absolute best as it explores its ideas; what is a word, really? How much power do they have, in the literal sense of being able to reprogram human cognition. You’ll find yourself thinking about it long after you put the book down, which for me is always a plus; see the previous paragraph about authors and reader cleverness.

Where this book wanders away from being perfect is when it decides to be a thriller. Simply put, there are a few thriller tropes that really grate. We never really find out WHY the poets (the main organization) are amassing all of this power or why the main antagonist makes any of the choices that he/she (keeping it ambiguous to avoid spoilers) makes. We’re left to assume and thus the overarching plot has a bit of an “evil for the sake of evil” mastermind bit going on that’s at odds with how clever the rest of the storytelling is.

Regardless, this is a book that I can highly recommend, especially for people who like their fiction to feel as smart as they are.

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Review: Saga Volume Six

Saga, Volume 6Saga, Volume 6 by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Man, what I wouldn’t give for a recap page at the start of this volume. Even just a reminder of where everyone was at the end of the last volume, because the plotline has become a thick and tangled web of who wants to kill whom and who is allied with whom to prevent the afore-mentioned killing. But that’s all just a quibble. You can always go back and read volume 5, after all.

Volume 6 is great. It’s a bit lighter than previous ventures, a bit more hopeful, and I think that’s due in large part to the presence of Hazel, now old enough (albeit still in kindergarten) that she has her own voice in the story, not just that of the narrator. There also a few new interesting characters as well, which is great considering how high the body county for this series is.

Otherwise, what is there to say? The art is beautiful and weird, there’s so much non-hetero-normative sexuality that it’s all a delight to my progressive heart, especially when it’s juxtaposed with ideas about family and parenthood.

Mild spoilers for previous volumes: most of all, though, I think I’m happiest to see Alana and Marko working together again. The timeline jumps make it a bit tricky to determine if Hazel’s foreboding narration in a previous volume “that this is the story of how my parents split up” means that the split is still coming or if the troubles they encountered in the previous books were that split; it’s hard to say, but I’m pleased to see them here, working together, even if it’s not going to last.

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Review: Adulthood Is a Myth: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection

Adulthood Is a Myth: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection by Sarah Andersen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fun collection of comic strips that are perfect for the introverted, self-conscious, and generally weird among us (so, you know, basically everyone who bothers to read online book reviews!) The breezy visuals contrast well with the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty that are the topics of most (though not all) of the strips, but this isn’t a “collection of despair.” You’ll laugh at most of them, and there are also several that extol the virtues of being cozy. This is very much a “feel-good” collection. I’ve been a fan of the online version of these comics for a while now and I’m looking forward to more of the author’s work; this collection in particular really gives me a sense that Sarah Andersen is a talent to watch. All in all, highly recommended.

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Review: World of WarCraft: Illidan

Illidan: World of WarcraftIllidan: World of Warcraft by William King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was but a stripling, I used to dive into fantasy books and read them (devour them, really) in a single sitting. It was the best feeling in the world, to be so absorbed into a book that you only pull yourself away to change position on your bed or to take a bathroom back before diving right back into it. It’s a sort of reading I don’t get to do as often these days, whether because reading over one’s lunch break necessitates keeping one eye on the clock so you’re not late or because prolonged exposure to the Internet has shortened my attention span to the point where I can only dive in the shallowest of intellectual waters.

Regardless, “Illidan” was a return to those early days. I read it cover to cover and had a great time while I did.

Let me get a few things out of the way, however. Yes, this is a video game fiction tie-in novel. No, it doesn’t actually pass my personal litmus test for tie-in fiction (that the story be accessible enough that you can read it and enjoy it without being a fan of the game). Yes, that makes me horrifically inconsistent. No, I don’t care, because I’m not getting paid to do this and if you want foolish consistency, go find a hobgoblin. This book is for fans of the game. If you haven’t played World of WarCraft, particularly if you haven’t played the first expansion “the Burning Crusade,” you can skip this one. It’s an amazing WarCraft novel, but it’s a middling fantasy novel. There are plenty of other middling fantasy novels out there; I’ve even read and reviewed some of them. Feel free to keep scrolling.

For those that are still here, as I said, I loved this book. It’s the best damn WarCraft novel yet to be published; let me explain why.

Let’s rewind to 2007. It was a different era, to be certain. Bush II was still destroying the country and we were all blissfully unaware that the Great Recession was just around the corner. World of WarCraft had begun to measure its success as a video game not in how many units had been sold or how many subscribers were playing, but by its body count of how many players were so enthralled that they died playing it because they forgot to eat, sleep, or use the bathroom. When the Burning Crusade expansion was launched, we, the brave heroes of Azeroth, fought off a demonic invasion and plunged through the Dark Portal into the strange realm of Outland. After fighting through the demonic invasion, we . . . then proceeded to wage war against the minions of a guy whose in-game class was entirely devoted to hunting and killing demons, a guy who’d always been, in the previous WarCraft game, a misunderstood anti-hero who, while often seeming a villain, usually was TRYING to do the right thing. Wait, what?

In the years since, the developers at Blizzard have acknowledged that the story in the Burning Crusade expansion was thin. And it was, indeed, paper thin. Characters that were playable heroes and well liked in the previous game (WarCraft III) are suddenly villains and raid bosses, for seemingly no reason better than “just ’cause.” What could have been a tragic and compelling story (having to fight those characters despite identifying with them) instead becomes a joke when the answer to the question “why are we killing these guys” is “because we want their stuff.” A thin story, indeed, and you can tell the lesson was taken to heart because the next expansion went out of its way to give you reasons to want to take down its final boss, the Lich King.

So, “Illidan” the book creates a storyline about what’s happening with the pseudo-final boss of the Burning Crusade to explain what he was doing while waiting around for us to kill him. It also takes several of the more strange elements that went unresolved in the game storyline and creates compelling justifications for them, in particular explaining why, despite the fact that we saw Illidan training new demon hunters, we only ever encounter one of those demon hunters as a raid boss.

The fact that the book manages to take that old game experience and create a new, interesting context feels, well, rather magical. Rationally, I know that this is all retcon; a complicated bit of storytelling judo to try and make a narrative out of the tangled, inconsistent disjointed experience of the original game narrative. However, even though I know it’s all retcon and I know that the game designers weren’t planning any of this when they made that storyline, “Illidan” manages to create explanations that feel amazingly seamless. It fits together like a puzzle piece and the revelations have actually improved my memories of that ancient expansion. It felt rather magical, honestly.

There are still plenty of flaws in the book. Although the book spends most of its time on its own narrative, the beginning and ending are set to the events of WarCraft III and the Black Temple raid, and you can absolutely feel the shift when the game narrative takes the driver seat, and not for the better. The dialogue for WarCraft III in particular has aged horrifically and feels stilted and unnatural. Unfortunately, no amount of word judo can make those pieces fit into the puzzle, but thankfully they’re rather rare.

So while Illidan doesn’t begin or end on a strong footing, it still manages to satisfy when allowed to tell its own story. It does an amazing job of building excitement for the upcoming Legion expansion and in particular makes me eager to play the new demon hunter class. And so, while it has plenty of flaws and is by no means a perfect book on its own, I can’t help but feel that this is the best WarCraft book I’ve read. As for the rating and how I justify this one, we’ll just say that we’re grading on a curve.

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Review: Jennifer Government

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’ve never read a dystopia quite like this one.

“1984” set the tone for the dystopian future; the government that controls everything and everyone. It’s a future we fear constantly in an age of mass surveillance and secret NSA projects and black ops teams. The totalitarian nightmare.

“Jennifer Government” is a very different type of dystopia. Corporations are all-powerful and people take the last names of the companies they work for. Everything can be bought and those with the most money (corporations) have the most power. It’s a very different vision of the future and it makes for a fascinating setting.

The story itself is about a government agent (the titular “Jennifer Government”) who is hunting an executive responsible for killing fourteen people as part of a marketing promotion. That’s the simplified version; along the way, there’s a weave of different characters crossing paths and double crossing each other. The NRA is a private military organization. It’s nuts. And it’s awesome.

Barry’s writing style is taut and quick, in the “short chapter” tradition that keeps the pages turning at a lightning pace. It makes for the “can’t-put-it-down” experience.

With such glowing praise, why only four stars out of five? After I finished the book, I realized how much I still wanted to know about it. How did history develop in such a way that the government became a powerless bureaucracy and the culture evolved that people named themselves for their employers? The novel’s relentless pace became a problem; things I wanted to stop and explore I instead blazed past on chase scenes and escapes.

There isn’t time to wonder about the hows and the whys as the bullets are flying and the stakes are raised. The dialogue itself tends to be action movie-esque, a vehicle to keep things moving. But there are so many fascinating questions; how did we get here, why is the world like this, and no one seemed willing to ask them. A lost opportunity, if ever there was one.

In the end, I came away feeling as though I’d gulped down a very tasty meal, but so quickly that I didn’t really get a chance to taste it.

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Review: O: A Presidential Novel

O: A Presidential NovelO: A Presidential Novel by Anonymous
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

What a mess. “O” fails to live up to the standard (which really wasn’t that high) set by its obvious inspiration “Primary Colors” as a wink-wink fictional account of the 2012 election campaign between Obama and Romney. Even though it’s non-fiction, “Double Down” by Mark Halperin creates a more exciting narrative of the race, and that’s without the freedom to create any series of events one desires, since fiction doesn’t have to correspond to real events.

The story itself is a wandering mess. Point-of-view changes occur back and forth mid-chapter in an odd fashion. Despite being billed a book about “what O(bama) is really thinking,” he’s surprisingly absent for most of the book. Instead, we spend a lot of time looking over the shoulder of campaign manager Cal Regan and spend a lot of time going back and forth over the same issues of campaigning. Over and over.

Though it owes its existence to Primary Colors, O suffers in every comparison. Perhaps it’s because the Clintons, love ’em or hate ’em, are larger-than-life characters even in real life, with drama and scandal and intrigue. Contrast Bill Clinton with “No Drama Obama” and you see why the best the author can do is come up with a tepid “donor tries to share dirt about campaign rival” storyline that isn’t interesting, isn’t intense, and never actually turns into anything. Considering how little the story actually seems to follow the 2012 campaign, it’s a wonder why the author didn’t invent something more dramatic. The Republican opponent, Tom Morrison, seems to be a fusion between McCain (war hero) and Romney (businessman), so . . . maybe we’re just reading some guy’s political fan fiction about the hypothetical candidate he wishes could have existed to run against Obama?

Instead, we get side references to the fact that Obama likes to smoke, wishes he could play more rounds of gold, and swears sometimes. Riveting stuff.

If you want a more exciting political fiction novel that is based (loosely) on real people, read Primary Colors; it holds up better, and this is from someone who wasn’t overly impressed with that book, either. If you want a narrative that actually managed to be interesting, and has the added benefit of being true, look at Mark Halperin’s works, “Game Changer” and “Double Down,” about the 2008 and 2012 campaigns respectively. They’re good stories, and both have the added benefit of being based on actual events.

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Review: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2

Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2 by Ben Gelinas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite my love for in-game lore and the lore of Dragon Age, this book falls into the “so okay it’s average” camp. That’s not for a lack of trying on the author; the production value on this book is tremendous. The art itself is gorgeous. I spent a long time looking at the two-page spread on the inside cover that has (as far as I can tell) every named NPC from all three games in a group portrait. The rest of the book is lovely as well, with different colors and styles to create the feel of a document that might actually exist within the game world.

The problems arise from the fact that this is an attempt at creating a comprehensive tome about a world that revolves around player choice, which creates vastly different world states. The level of effort that goes into writing around things like the gender and identities of the three protagonist characters (The Warden, Hawk, and the Inquisitor) go to almost comical lengths. “Details of Hawke’s identity, gender and abilities differ depending on who’s telling the story.”

Except that in the game, Hawke (the player character) defeats a powerful enemy in single combat and saves all the nobles of the city, which is what prompts them to name Hawke “the Champion of Kirkwall.” In-game, everyone is aware that Hawke is a man or a woman, a mage, a warrior, or a rogue, because the other versions of that character just don’t exist. It’s only in the effort to create a narrative that unifies all of these possible choices that makes this silly non-entity description of Hawke possible.

And that’s a huge problem when three of the most important characters in the world have this “non-entity” status. But even for defined characters like party members, the accounts have this curiously abrupt quality where the text just stops abruptly as soon as it gets to describing what might have happened to them in the game. Because, again, the world state can be different. Characters can live and die depending on your choices, which is what makes the Dragon Age games so much fun; your version of Thedas can be unique to you. But it makes a universal account impossible.

I still commend the author for spending a tremendous attention to detail. The bits that don’t deal with the characters and content of the games are excellent. Background stories from places we haven’t been or events that took place before the game . . . these are interesting. The creation of legends, too, is handled well. But so much of the book is focused on the events and characters of the games that it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend the book for these other interesting bits.

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