Wednesday, March 9, 2011


KrakenKraken by China MiƩville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A preserved giant squid is stolen from London's Natural History museum and curator Billy Harrow is at the top of everyone's list for answers. But who stole the Kraken and why? Was it the Londonmancers? Or minions of the Tattoo? Or the Church of the God Kraken? Or someone else all together? That's what Billy Harrow and Dane Parnell, a renegade from the Church, aim to find out. But can they recover the Kraken before it's used to trigger Armageddon?

China Mieville appears to have the Midas touch at times. In Kraken, he takes the conspiracy thriller and infuses it with so much new weirdness that green goo is oozing from between the pages. Where do I start? Do I talk about the Londonmancers, shamanic magicians who dwell in and shape London's streets? Or Wati, the sentient statue-thing that's unionizing London's familiars? Or the gunfarmers? Or the chaos nazis? Mieville throws so much at you in this one that it's hard to pick out one outlandish concept as the favorite.

I see people comparing this to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or American Gods, the works of Tim Powers, or even Mieville's own Un Lun Dun, but the book that it reminds me the most of is The Domino Men by Jonathan Barnes. There are conspiracies galore, gods created by belief, and the psychotic duo of Goss and Subby, who remind me both of Croupe and Vandemaar of Neverwhere fame and of The Domino Men.

The characters are an interesting bunch. Billy Harrow's in the Arthur Dent mode of protagonists. Parnell drives the story forward, as do the impressive array of interesting Londoners. In fact, Billy's probably the least interesting character within the book. But really, when one of the characters is a talking tattoo, he's got competition.

Easter eggs about within Kraken's piscine pages. There are multiple Star Trek references, including a magic-powered phaser and a Tribble, a Lolcats reference, Dr. Who, Michael Moorcock, the list goes on and on. And Mieville both mentions the criminally unknown Hugh Cook (of the delightful The Walrus and the Warwolf) in the forward and includes one of his poems, The Kraken Wakes, within the pages.

Any complaints? Only that there was a little too much going on at times. Kraken was a good read but it was never a "drop everything and neglect your personal hygene" kind of gripping. I found myself procrastinating a few times rather than go back to it. Once the story passes the 33% mark, it really takes off.

If squid based conspiracies are your bag, this book is for you. Otherwise, this book should appeal to Mieville fans, conspiracy fans, and fans of Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Barnes. Now get reading before I send the gunfarmers after you!

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Hyperion Cantos

Hyperion CantosHyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hyperion: On the eve of interstellar war between the Hegemony of Man and the barbarian Ousters over the fate of Hyperion, seven pilgrims embark on a journey to the Time Tombs and their mysterious protector, The Shrike, a three meter tall, four-armed monster covered with blades. One pilgrim will have his wish granted and the others will be impaled on the Shrike's Tree of Pain. Only one or more of the pilgrims isn't what he appears to be...

Every once in a while, a book comes along that eclipses many that came before it. Hyperion is one of those books. Told with a structure similar to the Canterbury tales, Hyperion is the story of seven pilgrims on a journey that will end in death for most of them. Interested yet?

Each pilgrim tells his or her story and Simmons doesn't skimp. We get a horror story, a detective story, action, tragedy, comedy, the whole nine yards. Instead of info-dumping the back story of the complex world he's created, Simmons rations the information and doles it out one bite-sized morsel at a time, mostly in the stories told by the pilgrims. The Shrike is going to stick with me for a long time after I'm finished.

The writing is superb. Simmons continues to wow me with his versatility and the concepts he introduces are amazing. Farcasters, tree ships, time debt, reverse aging, artificial intelligence, it's amazing the sheer amount of thought that obviously went into Hyperion's conception. Surprisingly, Hyperion is a fairly easy read. I have no idea why I've waited this long to accompany Kassad, Masteen, Lamia, and the others on their journey to meet the Shrike.

Fall of Hyperion: The situation in the world web rises to a fever pitch as all out war between the Ousters and the Hegemony of Man erupts. Or does it? And what do the pilgrims on Hyperion and an artist named Severn have to do with it? Is the Hegemony of Man doomed? And what does the Core have to do with everything?

That's about all I can reveal of the plot without blowing all the twists. Suffice to say, Dan Simmons is the man. The story of the seven pilgrims continues and the plot threads hinted upon in Hyperion are tugged and stretched to the breaking point. Things that seemed of minimal importance proved to be integral to the overall plot. Questions are answered, more questions are raised, the shit hits the fan, and dogs and cats begin living together. I never would have guessed whose blood it was in the wind wagon in the first book.

I can't imagine not reading the Fall of Hyperion after reading the first book and it must have been agony for those waiting for it when it was first published. I'd better wrap this up before I start giving away plot details about Brawne, Hoyt, Kassad, and the others. Suffice to say, The Hyperion Cantos are now on my measuring stick list of books, along with the Dark Tower, The First Chronicles of Amber, and the Matthew Scudder series. Highest possible recommendation.

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No Place to Die

No Place to DieNo Place to Die by James L. Thane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Attorney Beverly Thompson is kidnapped after watching her husband and dog being killed by a man she failed to keep out of prison years before. As she goes through a living hell of rape and abuse, Carl McClain goes on a rampage, killing all those he feels responsible for his incarceration. Can Detective Sean Richardson stop McClain before he kills Thompson?

Before I get into the meat of this review, I want to bring up a subject we are all passionate about: Goodreads Authors. You hate them, right? Befriending you just to sell a book? I tell you, this James Thane is the most insidious of them all. Rather than beat you over the head with ham-fisted solicitations to buy his book, he takes a much more stealthy approach. James befriends you, writes good reviews, votes on reviews he likes, and never once mentions he's an author. Pretty damn sneaky, don't you think?

Anyway, Thane's had a long love with suspense and detective fiction and it shows in No Place to Die. I've read a lot of suspense in the past couple years and this plot was actually fairly original. How often does the wrongly convicted man go on a revenge spree? This was a page turner and a half. By the end, I was just skimming, waiting for McClain's hash to get settled.

The two main characters, Sean Richardson and Carl McClain were well done. McClain was just the right mix of craziness and sensitivity. He wasn't the deranged genius most serial killers in detective fiction are. He was deranged but believed his actions were justified, the mark of a good villain. His sensitivity proved to be his downfall. Extra points to Thane for the Lawrence Block references.

Richardson was pretty good lead. His relationships with the other cops and his comatose wife fueled his half of the story. While I'm not a fan of police procedurals, the Richardson half of the book did its job building suspense leading up to the inevitable climax at the end. No Place to Die is a thriller that's well worth a few hours of your time.

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A Very Simple Crime

A Very Simple CrimeA Very Simple Crime by Grant Jerkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A wealthy woman is killed and all signs point to her mentally disturbed son. Disgraced attourney Leo Hewitt uncovers new evidence pointing to the woman's unhappy husband. Can Leo help the DA's office put him away?

I won this book in a Firstreads giveaway and didn't realize it was a legal thriller. Yawn city, right? Well, it turned out to be a lot better than the dreary courtroom drama I was expecting.

Jerkins uses shifting viewpoints to his advantage. Adam Lee, the suspect, has his part of the story told in the first person while the rest is told in the third person, primarily from the point of view of Leo Hewitt. This works to Jerkins' advantage. While I was pretty sure what was going on from the beginning, he had me doubting myself quite a few times.

The characters were well drawn, in my opinion. Leo's desire to regain his lost position was fairly powerful. Monty Lee seemed like a douchebag attourney and Paula's drive to get to the top was also pretty convincing. Adam Lee, the conflicted suspect, was both sympathetic and repugnant at the same time. Plumbing his past was good for some foreshadowing of the future.

The story was a page turner. I kept waiting for pieces of evidence to surface or be tossed out. I thought I knew what the final twist was going to be but I wound up being off by a few degrees.

While this book didn't change my views on legal thrillers, it was definitely worth a few hours of reading. Recommended for when you need a quick read with some twists.

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No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While out shooting antelope, Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon a crime scene: three trucks, all shot up, and numerous bodies. Upon further inspection, Moss finds a substantial quantity of heroin and a briefcase containing over two million dollars. Moss takes the money and quickly ends up a wanted man. Can Moss survive long enough to enjoy the money?

This was my first McCarthy book and probably won't be the last. I devoured it in a single sitting. The clipped style really drove the story forward, reminding me of Jim Thompson at times and Flannery O'Connor at others. The tension grows as Moss and Chigurh head toward the climax. Sheriff Bell does his best to piece things together and keep more people from dying. A recurring theme through the novel is choices, how one's choices make them who they are.

I wanted to give this five stars but I couldn't for two reasons. The primary reason: What was with the lack of quotation marks and apostrophes? Was McCarthy's keyboard defective? A little dialogue attribution would have been nice, particularly in the later chapters with Moss talking to other characters. The other gripe is that the last fifty or sixty pages didn't live up to the promise of the rest of the book. I don't want to spoil things but a pretty important character dies like a chump and does it off screen, making the previous 200+ pages seem like a bit of a waste.

All in all, No Country for Old Men was a good read, especially for those who like a good pulpy crime story. It's easily worth an evening of your time.

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The New Centurions

The New CenturionsThe New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Serge Duran, Gus Plebesly, and Roy Fehler are classmates at the police academy and take to the streets after graduation. But will being police officers be as they thought?

The New Centurions follows the lives of three young men for five years, starting from their police academy days and into the Watts riots of 1965. I was expecting a simple cop story but got so much more.

Joseph Wambaugh was a cop before he was a writer and it shows. Both the cops and the people they encounter are three dimensional. Duran struggles with his Mexican heritage. Plebesly deals with being a coward. And Fehler's an asshole until something happens to change his point of view. All three men go through considerable changes after their academy days. People fall in love, have kids, get divorced, have drinking problems, it's all there.

The New Centurions deals a lot with how the police view the people they're protecting and vice versa. Rather than portray the police as heartless fascists or white knights, they all have their flaws.

I can't really get into specifics of the plot because there isn't one. The chapters alternate between the three leads in different stages of their careers, showing their triumphs and failures, leading up to the aftermath of the Watts riots. While I've got it shelved as a crime book, it's more like a character study. There's a fair amount of dark humor as well.

The New Centurions is highly recommended. Give it read if you want a story about cops being cops.

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The Women And The Warlords

The Women And The WarlordsThe Women And The Warlords by Hugh Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oracle Yen Olass gets embroiled in the inner workings of the Collosnon Empire. Can she survive the madness of war, both the depredations of the Collosnon's enemy and the Collosnons themselves?

Hugh Cook said that this book was the one that made the Chronicles of the Age of Darkness commercially unviable. It's not hard to see why he said that. Yen Olass is hardly the typical fantasy heroine. She's large, mean, homely, and has strong lesbian leanings. Still, her story was very good and showed that Hugh Cook wasn't your average fantasy writer.

Like the two books before it and the two after it, The Women and the Warlords tells of the war between Argan and the Collosnon Empire. Morgan Heart, Bluewater Draven, and Watashi are the characters from the other books prominently featured. The siege of Castle Vaunting using the madness jewel is depicted yet again, this time from the point of view of one of the denizens. Instead of focusing on heroism and war, this book focuses on the place of women in Collosnon society.

In short, the women of Collosnon are treated like objects for the most part. Yen Olass, an oracle, was treated even worse. Oracles are sexually mutilated when they come of age and sewn shut. No wonder Yen Olass was so angry. Anyway, Yen Olass gets caught up in a web of lies, blackmail, and intrigue, and somehow manages to survive. No somehow. She's a survivor, used to living on her cleverness.

As always, Cook won me over with his originality. None of the fantasy stock monsters were used. The enemy was primarily human. The wishing machine was extremely creepy and I wondered for most of the rest of the story who or what Monogail's father was. I'm sure I'll find out in later volumes.

One of the most convincing parts of the story was Yen Olass's love for Monogail and Resbit, both very well done, as was Yen olass's heartbreak when Resbit left her for a man.

No review of The Women and the Warlords would be complete without the mention of two scenes. First, four people are nearly stoned to death. It was brutal and masterfully written. Second, without spoiling two much, two characters have a fight to the death that is shocking in it's brutality. I've never read another fantasy story where someone has his head dashed in by rocks, is disemboweled, and has his genitals cut off. Brutal, brutal stuff.

Highly recommended, both to fans of the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, and to fans of fantasy heroines who stay away from the chain mail bikini stereotype.

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The Wicked and the Witless

The Wicked and the Witless (Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, #5)The Wicked and the Witless by Hugh Cook

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sean Sarazin, exiled son of a Kingmaker, returns to the Harvest Plains, the land of his birth, and sets about trying to get himself crowned king. Little does he know the vast web of conspiracy he's been ensnared in for most of his life...

The Wicked and the Witless tells the story of San Sarazin, the man known as Watashi in the first four books of the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness. In those books, we're given the impression that Watashi is a formidable warrior and strategist. This book shows us the truth.

The Wicked and the Witless takes what has become a fantasy cliche, the hero foretold in an ancient prophecy, and turns it on its ear. There is a prophecy but Sarazin has been nudged into fulfilling it by years of subtle manipulation. There are wheels within wheels in this story and endless political machinations and double-dealing. It was difficult to tell who was working with whom.

Sarazin is an unwitting pawn and as ill-equipped as most of Hugh Cook's protagonists. Thoric Jarl, the wise old mercenary, is a fountain of wisdom, gradually grooming Sarazin to become Watashi, whose name means blood and death. Sarazin's story raises questions about fate, destiny, and even history itself.

Easter eggs abound in The Wicked and the Witless. Miphon and Morgan Hearst are fairly prominent, as is that splendid bastard Drake Douay. The fall of the Confederation of Wizards and the rise of The Swarms is retold yet again, as is the war between Stokos and Hok.

Hugh Cook has woven a twisting tale sure to please any fan of political fantasy. Readers of the earlier Chronicles of an Age of Darkness won't want to miss this one.

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The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers

The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers (Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, #6)The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers by Hugh Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A massive energy drain disrupts the magic of Injiltaprajra and it's up to Chegory Guy to divine what happened. Too bad he's just a rock gardener at Injiltaprajra's insane asylum. But does the disruption have anything to do with the the Wishstone?

The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers is a slight departure from the first five books in the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness. Rather than concerning the fall of Argan from different angles like the first five, this one is the story of Chegory Guy and a demon forcing itself into the world. Rather than being a straightforward tale, this one is purported to be told through a manuscript written by one of the asylum's inmates. It took me a little while to warm up to the style but I was hooked by one of the hilarious interjections by one of the supposed editors of the manuscript. Jeff Vandermeer employed a similar technique in Shriek but I enjoyed it a lot more here.

While my summary above makes The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers sound like a fantasy version of Die Hard, it isn't. Interesting narration aside, it's more the story of a protagonist that isn't a hero. Chegory is an Ebrell Islander, a red-skinned persecuted minority. One of his friends is The Shabble, a miniature sun. Chegory blunders his way through the story, interacting with such personages as a corpse seller, Guest Gulkan and his Wishstone-stealing crew, and, of course, The Hermit Crab, a godlike being resembling a giant crab that Chegory is charged with feeding a bucket of fish guts once a day. Gulkan makes cameo appearances in all the Chronicles leading up until the final book where, I presume, he finally takes center stage.

As always with Hugh Cook, there is a fair amount of hilarity. Without giving too much away, every one of the cultural taboos Chegory was raised with are challenged in amusing ways. That's about all I can say without giving away too much of the plot.

If you're looking for a hero, look someplace else. If you're looking for an ordinary person going up against extraordinary things, The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers, as well as the other books in the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, are for you.

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The Wordsmiths and the Warguild

The Wordsmiths and the Warguild (Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, #2)The Wordsmiths and the Warguild by Hugh Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While on the run from an arranged marriage, Togura Poulaan accidentally kills a monster and is mistaken for a great hero. The Wordsmiths, an organization of wizards, send him on a quest to solve the mystery of the Odex, a shiny disc that seems to be a magical treasure chest, frequently vomiting forth treasure, monsters, and refuse. After a disastrous ball, Togura's young lover disappears into the Odex. Can Togura figure out a way to get her out and lose his festering virginity?

That Hugh Cook sure crafted fantasy characters that broke the mold. Togura is young, cowardly, and horny as hell. He blunders from one misadventure to the next, encountering cannibals, pirates, horny sea dragons, wizards, the list goes on and on. Through no actions of his own, he gradually gets closer and closer to his goal, the index to the Odex and the rescue and boning of Day Suet.

While the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness is a series, they aren't so tight that you have to read them in any certain order. Easter eggs abound for those who've read more of Hugh Cook's saga, however. The pirates of the Warwolf make an appearance, as do Bluewater Draven and several other recurring characters. Some scenes in The Walrus and The Warwolf are touched upon from other angles.

If you're looking for the young hero going against great odds, you won't find it here. If you're looking for a hilarious tale about a teenager that's more like someone you know, here it is. You won't be disappointed.

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