Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review: The Crown Tower

The Crown Tower The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent still on the re-read. Upon reflection though, I have come to the conclusion that this definitely works better for a reader that has already read the Revelations series. It's good on its own or as an introduction to the overall series, but will mean more to a reader that's already familiar with the main characters.

Oh yes, and the narration by Tim Gerard Reynolds is superb, as expected.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review: Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories

Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review copy eARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley

Joe R. Lansdale has been on my radar for many years, and always seemed to be an author I’d enjoy. But the shame of it is that until now, I’ve only read one or two short stories of his. This collection was fantastic, and if it’s any indication of a consistent writing style from Lansdale, I’ll certainly be reading more of his work in short order.

“Driving to Geronimo’s Grave” – I had no idea where this story was going as it got started, but wasn’t disappointed. Terri was the best part of this. I really got a feel for the Great Depression setting here.

“In the Mad Mountains” – You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually read an HP Lovecraft story. But even so, I recognize when something is “Lovecraftian”, and this is certainly it (confirmed by the author’s notes after the story). Besides that, it reminded me of what might have happened if Dan Simmons wrote about the Titanic in the spirit of The Terror, and maybe had some contributions from Stephen King in the vein of “The Langoliers”. And then so much more than all of that. Loved it.

“Wrestling Jesus” – What a fantastic story! I couldn’t see where it was going*, and I was glued to the page from beginning to end. This is a unique take on the “young guy meets old mentor” story and is very well written. *What’s even more amazing is that in the notes, I discovered that I’d actually read this story before, in the Dangerous Women anthology. Looking back at my review, I had flagged it as a favorite.

“Robo Rapid” – and he does science fiction too. This was a great tale of a disturbing post-apocalyptic future.

“The Projectionist” – This was based on an Ed Hopper painting, so I had to look it up online after reading. I would have done so before, but didn’t know that fact until the author notes after the story. Anyway, this fits with “Wrestling Jesus” as a mentor-student bond type tale, though quite different in its execution. (Pun intended)

“Everything Sparkles in Hell” – Great title for the final story! Oh, and it’s a Western. Great way to close out an excellent collection. I really liked this one, with the suspense of the hunting grizzly bear. I was also pleased to see that there are other stories out there about Nat Love, so this is just the beginning.

All in all a great collection which left me wanting more. Lansdale is a great short story writer; most authors have a good one here and there but their collections are pretty uneven. This one is rock solid, with every single story being of equal high intensity and quality. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. I’ll be grabbing more of the short stories, and I look forward to trying a novel as well.

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Review: Street Freaks

Street Freaks Street Freaks by Terry Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*eARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

I enjoyed this. It was certainly different than any Terry Brooks that I’d read before, and I’ve read a lot of Terry Brooks. Loyal fans will probably like this as his storytelling quality is there, even if we’re looking at a dystopian future instead of epic fantasy. It appeals to all age groups, being friendly in tone to younger readers, but mature enough in content for older ones as well. Because the main hero and majority of the characters are teens, this would work well as being categorized YA, but it’s a good story regardless.

The pacing and plot are pretty good overall, but there are a couple of plot points that didn’t make a lot of sense. The overall story was fine, but some of the hidden motivations with the “adults” in the story weren’t clear. Maybe they weren’t supposed to be, but it made for a distracting feeling as I came to the end. The ending itself felt pretty good, but these odd tidbits hung with me.

Will this be a series? Had to imagine anything from Terry Brooks that isn’t, but the book could stand alone. It could also see expansion, both in continuation of threads left open here and in other stories set in this future “United Territories”. Either way, I’d be interested in seeing what will come out, if anything.

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Monday, September 3, 2018

Review: Kings of the Wyld

Kings of the Wyld Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

That hit the spot. I’ve been looking for this book for years, needing to read something that was just a whole bunch of fun.

Reading this story of a bunch of retired mercenaries getting the band back together for a final tour was a dip into my entertainment history. Back in my Air Force days, I had a group of men and women that gathered once a month for a truly epic Saturday. We’d meet for breakfast and then gather at one of our houses for an all-day session of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. We bought up the 2nd Edition books as they came out and had to try everything.

I’d play those old cassettes on my way to the games (or to breakfast and back if the session was at my house). I remember jamming to Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog” as I went to one of these, nearly 30 years ago. I even named a character/villain “Britney Fox” after one of the semi-popular hair bands of the day and jammed their cassette while I plotted her diabolical schemes.

So yes, I smile at the idea of calling up all these old friends, getting a few cases of beer and some pizzas, and dragging the old books out. We’d bring back our own band: Qurx Grimthorn, Anastasious Xerxes, Quinta Ish, Marco the Weak, Corwyn, and Borg the Sly. Plus many (bards) whose names I can’t remember. We’d be rusty. We’d probably be embarrassing to our spouses and children. We’d be clumsy and have a lot of false starts as we try to remember all the rules and try to move with our old bones in ways that were second nature back then.

But in the end, I’m sure we’d have a kickass time.

That’s what this book was. It was much fresher and flowing as a story than that fantasy meeting I just described would be (it wouldn’t). But the feelings of nostalgia are one of the key components that drives this story, along with great characters, cool as hell imaginative twists, and a sense of humor that had me laugh out loud as I was caught off guard more than once.

One question I keep seeing is “Is it Grimdark?” when asked about this book. Most argue that it is not. So I had to think on that, and well, I don’t know what to say. It appeals to readers and authors of Grimdark. Eames has been published in Grimdark Magazine, and I keep seeing authors known for their gritty work endorsing this. There are definitely “grimdark” moments and scenes through the story, but no, I don’t think it ends up being such.

I compare this question to that of Pink Floyd. Back in the day when you were only cool if you listened to heavy metal and hard rock, there was Pink Floyd. A trippy band with lots of deep musical experimentation and big ideas, Pink Floyd could play the hell out of their unique music. And while it wasn’t heavy metal at all, one thing I noticed was that metalheads loved it. If you were a metalhead and you had Duran Duran cassettes, you’d better hide them when your headbanger friends came over. But not so with Pink Floyd. Those could be out in front and played loud. It was even a sign of being cool if you had some sort of Pink Floyd poster on the wall. No, Pink Floyd wasn’t metal, but metal fans found them totally cool and acceptable all the same.

That’s how I see Kings of the Wyld. It’s not grimdark, but just about every grimdark reader has tried this book (or plans to). And most love it. It’s found on their shelves beside the works of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence. And it looks just fine sitting there with those.

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Sunday, September 2, 2018

Review: Fallen Empire

Fallen Empire Fallen Empire by Keith McArdle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Now, that was interesting. There's a lot to enjoy in this short(ish) book. It starts off being the story of a badass fighting assassin highlander but quickly becomes something much more epic in scope. What I took for a story about a single flawed hero turned into a stage of several flawed actors.

But when you throw in witchery, possessing demons, giant intelligent spiders, and some mean-ass fighting wolves, what's not to love? Fallen Empire starts out as the tale of Vyder Ironstone, our badass fighting assassin highlander mentioned above. He takes on a quest to save a kidnapped prince from an enemy kingdom but before he can get moving on his quest, he's jumped by some foresters he had previously clashed with in a tavern. He's quite messed up and near death, but his servant Miriam senses he's in trouble and gets him to a healer. This leads them to a old Wiccan woman to fix what the doctor cannot, and opens a whole new can of worms. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Now the kingdom has to deal with this Pandora's Box that has opened, while our "hero" comes to terms with his new gifts/curse and resumes his quest.

Honestly, the pacing did get away from itself a few times. It seemed to stall some in the middle parts. I think the author was trying to get so much rich detail in there that it backfired a little. As he went to open up the scope of the story, there were occasions where the detail slowed the pacing down and ended up distracting rather than enhancing the story. That's my only complaint though, and it's all that keeps my rating from being higher than an "I liked it".

I will say, however, that that in last third of the book, things really clicked into place. It finished strongly, though is quite obviously a setup for more books (I see a trilogy at least). That said, it ended at a decent spot, for now. There's a lot unanswered, of course.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Review: Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists

Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists by Adrian Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When this was announced by Arian Collins over at Grimdark Magazine as an upcoming Kickstarter, I couldn’t wait to jump on board. As I have always found myself intrigued by well written villains/adversaries, I knew this was something I wanted to experience. I’ve discovered while watching the Marvel shows on Netflix that the characters I’m most interested in, (Kingpin, Punisher, and Killgrave) are always the “bad guys”. These shows have great writing, such that they really dig deep into what made the villains..villains. While they don’t justify what they’ve become, these stories give some perspective, some insight on how they came to be the way they are.

So yes, I was excited to have that experience In narrative form. Some authors have entertained me over the years with this concept, telling stories of the “bad guys” within the overall works that bring it all together. I think of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, and Steven Erikson, among others. Heck, this is the whole concept that has drawn me in to what is now called “grimdark” fiction.

I could not be more pleased with the final product. The cover art is fantastic, as is the interior art. It was a joy to hold this paperback and slowly absorb the total reading experience. As with most anthologies, there is a bit of mixed bag – great stories mixed in with stuff that isn’t as great. But all in all, I’d say that every story offers something and is worth exploring.

I will say that while I love the concept (telling the story from the perspective of the bad-guy), there is a flaw with the idea of jumping in here. It is extremely difficult within the limitations of a short story to bring the total story into perspective, that is to really give us the full effect of “hey, now I get to see this from the bad guy’s perspective”. The reason is simple; most of us have not read all the material that these characters are drawn from. Even with well known authors, it’s going to take one prolific reader to catch up on all the source material before reading these tales. This is not criticism, but a flaw in the “perfect” situation. Perfect would have been to come in having read everything to this point.

The example of “Old Blood” is a good one. There were a lot of references to people and events from the main series, so it was difficult to follow and really get the intended effect of the story for new readers. “The Broken Dead” was a good example of how it worked for me, because I’ve read all of Fletcher’s published material in this universe and even remembered the events and characters drawn up here. So yes, this one worked better than all the rest for me personally.

So as a new introduction to these authors, this is probably not the ideal collection. It’s good for some as you get a good taste of their style and how their worlds work, but a grain of salt should be held out. Still, many of these authors are now highlighted for me in my future reading plans, so it does work.

Now, on to my individual story comments. I’ll keep them brief..Favorites indicated with (*):

Introductions – The first was by R. Scott Bakker. It gave me a headache. I can tell this guy is one of those genius craftsman authors that just don’t connect to regular dudes like me. This introduction and the story from Knee Deep in Grit have me thinking that, and I see we have a story in this book to loom over us.

The second intro was perfect. Adrian Collins is a regular guy and he gave a teaser for the book’s content without weighing me down. This is the kind of thing that gets me excited about what I’m fixing to read.

*“The Broken Dead” by Michael R. Fletcher – This guy never fails to impress. I enjoyed reading a key scene from Beyond Redemption from a different perspective, this time from one of the adversaries. Of course, everyone is a villain in this book so in this case I had more sympathy for the POV character than the first time through.

“Every Hair Casts a Shadow” by Teresa Frohock. I haven’t read any of her work before, but I can say that this seems to be an intriguing take on the Angels vs Demons theme, and it might even turn out better than most in the execution. Too early to tell with a short story, but definite potential here.

*“The Divine Death of Jirella Martigore” by Alex Marshall – That was different. I was definitely engrossed in the writing as I tried to take in all the world building. I’m curious enough to try the first novel, which I’ve had on the TBR since before it came out.

“A Royal Gift” by Mark Adler – I didn’t get the historical references and it was too short to decide if I liked the dark fantasy edge.

“Old Blood” by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Now I’ve read a couple of short stories in the Shadows of the Apt series, and enjoyed them quite a bit, enough to put the first novel on my TBR. This time around, I didn’t love the story. It was well written, but I felt lost. I’m coming to think that some of these stories just don’t work as well as intended with a reader that hasn’t read the main series it’s from. I’d be interested in revisiting this one after I’ve read some of the novels, and see if I enjoy it better. That said, I’m still wanting to check out the first novel.

“Black Bargain” by Janny Wurts – First, I love this lady’s prose and characters. I found myself immersed immediately and ran with it. Thing is, it has been so long since I’ve read any of these books that I felt lost with all the names, places, and events referenced. This is another case where I think a lot is lost unless the reader is a (fresh) veteran reader of the original work.

*“The Syldoon Sun” by Jeff Salyards – Now that was fun. I’m not sure how it all ties into the main series, but I definitely want to read those books sooner rather than later. This was a great introduction to Salyards’s work.

“The Darkness within the Light” by Shawn Speakman – An author that’s been on my TBR radar for awhile, I was very pleased with this story. Wizards, fae, Arthurian stuff, and plenty of grim. Definitely one to explore further.

*“The Greater of Two Evils” by Marc Turner – Wow. Another author that I’ve been meaning to try, and I see why. Pirates and Storm Lords on the seas, with battle magics and plot twists. Loved it, and will be moving that Turner book I have up the TBR.

“Exceeding Bitter” by Kaaron Warren – Creepy grimdark ghost-story; this was really interesting. It might be worth exploring more of this author’s work.

*“A Game of Mages” – by Courtney Schafer – Here’s yet another author I’ve been meaning to try, and once more I’m not disappointed. This is a favorite. I loved the dark magics and was interested in immersing into the world further.

“The Tattered Prince and the Demon Veiled” by Bradley P. Beaulieu – This was the longest story in the book, I think. The pacing was pretty good though. I have read and liked the author previously, though had not yet read anything set in this world. It was very intriguing, but I think I’d get more out of this story by reading a longer work first.

*“Storm Unbound” by E.V. Morrigan – Heck yes. This is what I love about grimdark! Deception, assassins, and a twist with a twist at the end.

“The Game” by Matthew Ward – Political maneuvering with dark magic. Nice plot, setting up for something else later. Would still like to learn more of this world.

“Blood Penny” by Deborah A. Wolf – Great imagery and creepy ritual magics going on. Here’s another author I’ve been meaning to try and I can tell already she’s a good ‘un. I’m still undecided if this particular world setting is to my taste, but it definitely has some potential.

*“Better than Breath” by Brian Staveley – here’s another author I’ve been meaning to try for a long time and I keep hearing great things about his stuff. And this story does not disappoint. This is a perfect example of the book’s theme, and is realized even without being familiar with the original work.

“The Foundation of Bones” by Mazarkis Williams – I haven’t heard as much about this author as some of the others, but was still curious. This turned out to be a pretty good one; nicely paced with some intriguing backstory.

*“The Aging of a Kill” by Peter Orullian – A definite favorite. This was my second Orullian story this year and I had much the same reaction, one that makes me want to read his novels immediately. I love the way this story was layered, stories within stories, and the way he tied it all together at the end. Brilliant. I need more of this in my reading life.

“The Carathayan” by R. Scott Bakker – This is also my second reading from Bakker, and once more I feel consistent. I did enjoy this one more than the first I read, but also found myself a bit confused by all the names/places and just the weirdness of the story. His prose is wonderful and there are certainly some intriguing ideas in here, but I just don’t know if I could read through an entire novel of it. I’ll hold out judgment though and just see where my reading path takes me.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Review: Knee-Deep in Grit: Two Bloody Years of Grimdark Fiction

Knee-Deep in Grit: Two Bloody Years of Grimdark Fiction Knee-Deep in Grit: Two Bloody Years of Grimdark Fiction by Adrian Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a great taste of short grimdark stories, and though they're all classed in that "subgenre", there is a huge variety in this collection. The settings and styles are all different, but they share some common elements: blood and grit and darkness.

I was actually surprised at the amount of sci-fi in this group of stories. All this time I thought of "Grimdark" as something one would get from Joe Abercrombie or Mark Lawrence, full of anti-heroes that cut and bludgeon people to death. You get that here, but the subgenre covers more ground in setting than I'd expected. It makes sense though, people die in space too.

I received an eARC of this wonderful book from the amazingly cool editor, Adrian Collins. No strings, just a means to start early. I liked the first few stories enough that as soon as Adrian announced that pre-orders were available, I jumped on it and got a paperback copy to go on my shelf beside the equally brilliant Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists. I even set aside my e-copy for a time so I would be able to finish the experience with paperback in hand. And that cover!

So along the way, I made notes for each story, which I'll include here:

Knee Deep in Grit

Started this morning, and super excited! It starts off with 2 introductions, and yes I'm one of the people in the world that reads these things. First is by Mark Lawrence, which is cool because I'm on a big Lawrence kick right now, reading the Broken Empire trilogy.

Second introduction is by Mike Myers, a regular guy that has a job reading and editing grimdark fiction. How cool is that??

"The King Beneath the Waves" by Peter Fugazzotto - Great story! I really enjoyed these few pages I had to get to know this little band of Vikingesque pirate clansmen. I am definitely interested in seeing more of this gritty world in longer form.

“The Line" by T.R. Napper - grim little tale about a boxer in the future with some old school mafia connections.

"At the Walls of Sinnlos" by Michael R. Fletcher - Yes! It's always great crazy fun to get into some Manifest Delusions. Might be a bit confusing without prior experience, but is still a great teaser for the main series.

"The Right Hand of Decay" by David Annandale - Loved this short scene from a battle where not all is as it seems, and the ending is brutal.

"The Neutral" by Mike Gelprin (translated by by Anatoly Belilovsky ) - Wow. Such a short one yet packs a powerful punch to the gut. I would love to see more of this world/universe. Set in the near future, this is a unique look at the work of a hostage negotiator. It's scary enough to happen someday.

“Brazen Dreams” by Matthew Ward – Here’s another future tale, but it definitely captures the idea of grit. Our characters definitely show us shades of grey and you really don’t know who is on whose side.

“The Knife of Many Hands” by R. Scott Bakker - This was interesting. At first, I found myself struggling mightily with the names and wondering if I was at a big disadvantage by not having read any of Bakker’s work before. I still felt like that by the end, but came to appreciate his prose and imagination. It ended up being a good sample of his work, and a long enough story to decide that I’ll most likely avoid delving deeper into the large series. It would just be too much work to get through when I read for escape.

“Drone Strikes for Fun and Profit” by Aaron Fox-Lerner. Wow, now this was more like it. Here’s another near-future story that is frightening to contemplate. Just how “near”? I was impressed with how easy and light the tone was, and how that very lightness is what brought total horror to the whole idea. This shit could seriously happen, like tomorrow.

“All the Lovely Brides,” by Kelly Sandoval. This one started out pretty grim, though sweet. The resolution didn’t sneak up on me but I was still surprised. Here we get a taste of sensual beauty and grace with a dark undertone.

“Shadow Hunter” by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Wow. This was my second short story set in the Shadows of the Apt world. I remember having a thought when I read the first one, which was “why haven’t I read these?” I asked myself the same question yesterday. This is something I need to rectify.

“A Recipe for Corpse Oil” by Siobhan Gallagher – This was a fun one. Creepy and suspenseful, as we just waited for the other shoe to drop.

“Redemption Waits” by Mike Brooks – One of my favorites so far. This was Fireflyesque, with an interesting crew. I was intrigued enough here to add the first book of the main series to my TBR.

“A Fair Man” by Peter Orullian – Great stuff! Even more a favorite than the previous. I am interested in reading more set in this world. Grim, grit, and dark, with a twist.

“Boomer Hunter” by Sean Patrick Hazlett – This near-future action-packed story with a twist was just what I needed with a short reading window. There’s a lot going on in these few pages.

“The Nu-Thai Screwjob” by Gav Thorpe – Another future, but this one is farther out. Great pacing, but I felt that I needed more resolution. Still, sparks interest.

“Lessons of Necessity” by T.C. Powell – Wow! Just a few pages but it packs a hell of a punch. Of course I’d want to know the answer to the question at the end…Off I go to research this author…

“A Proper War” by James A. Moore – This author has been on my radar for a while, and I see why. He tells a great story of conflict and badassery. I could certainly see this story expanded into a longer work as the characters and world have lots of intrigue, and the pacing is there.

“The Red Wraith” by Nicholas Wisseman – Sweet, poetry that I can get! Fits our theme too.

“The Woman I Used to Be” by Gerri Leen – Another sci-fi-ish story that has a good buildup with a payoff that leaves the reader wanting just a little more.

“The Price of Honor” by Matthew Ward – I struggled a bit with all the names and references to groups and alliances. It would have worked a lot better if I was familiar with this universe, and his other works in it. I’m not even sure what works those would be.

“Red Sails, Red Seas” by Victor Milan – Dinosaur Knights and pirates? Sign me up. It’s set in the same world as The Dinosaur Lords, but a different area. Still pretty cool stuff.

“Ashes” by Tara Calaby – This was an odd, dark fairy tale retelling/sequel to a classic. It certainly put a dark spin on the original, which I suppose was the point.

“Viva Longevicus” by Brandon Daubs – A dysfunctional family of space marines conducting a rescue mission on a planet infested with bio-engineered pet rats? Oh yes, this was as fun as it sounded. Lots of gore.

“Against the Encroaching Darkness” by Aliette de Bodard – Great imagery, as I expected after reading her first novel of the Dominion of the Fallen. The power games in the novel translate well to the short story.

“Bad Seed” by Mark Lawrence – origin story of Red Kent, full of the awesome Lawrence prose and blood.

Great stuff, all in all. Some peaked my interest more than others, of course. Favorites include "Redemption Waits", "At the Walls of Sinnolos", "Bad Seed", "Boomer Hunter", "Drone Strikes..." and "A Fair Man".

What's really exciting is that these stories (and more) exist in the pages of the quarterly ezine, Grimdark Magazine, also published by Adrian Collins. This volume just covers stories from the first 8 issues (they're up to 16 now, so hoping for another anthology!) At any rate, during the course of this reading I became a Patreon, which is a fancy way of saying "subscriber". This isn't a plug as much as an affirmation that the quality of these stories is high enough that I'll be sinking money into future issues (and catching up on back issues).

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