Fantasy Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

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2.5/5 Stars

So I finally read The Name of the Wind after it had been sitting on my bookshelf for over a year. Actually, I’d picked it up, tried to get through the Prologue, and given up more than once. There was just something about that melodramatic, purple-prose-y introduction that turned me off. But eventually, a recommendation from my sister got me to power through and give it an honest go.

Now, I don’t want anyone to get all up in arms about this being a two star review; it’s probably actually a 2.5 as it was better than okay and I really did like the story. But this is another book that, for my tastes, could have used a heavy-handed editor. There is no doubt in my mind that Rothfuss is a talented writer. He has built an intriguing world, the mechanics of magic are well thought out, and his prose has moments of stunning clarity and true beauty in equal measures. But much of what I liked about this book was drown out by a lot of over-written, repetitive metaphors and a tendency to belabour ideas until I stopped caring about them.

I think The Name of the Wind is a five star book that is being smothered by itself. In my opinion, Rothfuss would not have needed to add anything to gain a five star review from me; it’s in there. He just needed to trim the fat a little more closely—okay, a lot more closely—for it to be visible. And I also recognize that this style of writing is exactly what some people love, and I do understand why so many people have given it 4-5 stars. I get bored reading Tolkien, too. So shoot me.

My biggest issue with the prose is that much of the imagery just doesn’t make sense. For example “The man had true-red hair, red as flame.” (Pg. 1, and elsewhere). Now, I don’t know about you, but I have pretty much never seen a red flame. A candle-flame is nearly white, with soft yellow and orange edges. Flame in a fireplace is mostly yellow and orange as well, with some white and blue. I’ve even seen green flame; try lighting a Cheeto on fire. But I’ve never seen a red flame. Am I crazy? Is there some magical red fire that I don’t know about? Please tell me I’m not the only one! And the image is used constantly throughout the text. This might seem like nit-picking. If it was the only image that seemed off to me, I’d probably let it slide. But The Name of the Wind is rife with them.

And the images that do make sense are often followed immediately by other, less ideal images. “[The cuts] gaped redly against the innkeeper’s fair skin, as if he had been slashed with a barber’s razor or a piece of broken glass.” (Pg. 40) Do we really need both? The image of broken glass, to me, is the more effective one. It evokes a violent, ragged wound. The barber’s razor would leave comparatively cleaner, more sanitary looking cut. Either way, the two images are at odds with one another. Which is it?

Similarly, “Kote’s voice cut like a saw through bone…He spoke so softly that Chronicler had to hold his breath to hear” (Pg. 45). I find these images contradictory. It’s distracting to have one thing described in multiple, contradictory ways. These two examples are not the worst, they are just the ones I happened across on a brief scan of the first few pages. I actually wish I’d made note of the imagery I liked and the imagery that didn’t work so that I could articulate this issue more clearly. But I didn’t. And I’m not going to re-read the thing just to prove a point. Other reviewers have gone to the trouble already, I’m sure.

Other things that bugged me: too many types of currency (can we at least have an index to reference, please?), unnecessary changes to days of the week (again, please proved a reference, because the names themselves are arbitrary and confusing), names of languages do not necessarily match their place of origin (again, this would be fine if there was an index, but there’s not and it’s confusing), the constant use of names in conversation (when two people are talking to each other, they don’t usually start every sentence with the other’s name… that’s just weird), the story within a story within a story format (sometimes it works great and I like the effort and detail Rothfuss has put into the mythology, but the main Chronicler/Kvothe bookending comes across as extremely contrived), the convenient plot resolutions (there is literally no conflict that doesn’t just magically resolve itself without direct input from Kvothe)… but not enough for me to dwell on. I can forgive the convenience of the plot because I found the rest of the world satisfyingly complex. I recognize that the Arabian Nights style narrative is just not to my personal taste. The other issues on their own wouldn’t bother me that much, but together they cry out for an editor.

There is one issue that is difficult for me to get past, however. And that is how everything is “the best.” Sure, Kvothe’s a Gary Sue, but that doesn’t really irk me. It’s a common enough problem that, if the rest of the book is up to snuff, I tend to just ignore this problem. But not only is Kvothe a Gary Sue, but it’s like everything he touches is the best of the best.

The Edema Ruh (the name of which will always remind me of the terrible swelling I had during pregnancy) are Gary Sue style performers. Everything they do is described as so completely without compare that I don’t believe in them. They don’t make mistakes. They know every song and story that ever existed. They are flawless and boring.
Kvothe’s mastery of the lute and his song-writing are so heartbreakingly beautiful that he stuns everyone wherever he goes. But this doesn’t leave any room for people who don’t like the lute, maybe, or who prefer a different style of music. No. He is just amazing and everyone who hears him recognizes it instantly. And every time I read one of the songs he’s written, I am heartbroken. Heartbrokenly underwhelmed.

Similarly, Kvothe’s description of the love of his life is so over the top perfect (in Kvothe’s mind) that she is immediately disappointing when we meet her. And the problem is that what one person finds attractive may or may not jive with what another person finds attractive. We don’t all have the same taste in men/women, or music, or wine. There is no such thing as “the best,” nothing is perfect to everyone. It is self-defeating to describe anything so simplistically. These characters couldn’t live up to their own hype. No one could. And it’s not that Rothfuss isn’t up to the task, it’s that no one is. There is no perfect description of anything that will satisfy every reader. So don’t even try. Seriously.

Anyway, enough of the negatives. I want to get back to what I like about this book. Rothfuss has done a great thing in building this world. It may not be the most unique fantasy world ever created. And it doesn’t need to be. It is whole and believable. The magic works without becoming a convenient plot device (one of the few easy outs that isn’t taken advantage of, interestingly), the world mythology is rich and complex and integral to the story (this is a huge, impressive achievement), the characters are varied and interesting, the story is multifaceted and engaging. There are a lot of good things going on with this novel. Sadly, I really do feel like it’s a 5 star book hiding in a 2.5 star body.

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eReaders… I’m finally joining everyone in the 21st C.

Okay. I finally did it. I’ve ordered a Kindle Paperwhite. Don’t tell me I’ve made the wrong choice; it’s too late now.

I have stubbornly avoided getting on the eBook bandwagon. I covet my moments with real books in my hands. The last thing I need in  my life is more “screen time.” I need the soft shush of pages turning, the sweet smell of ink and book-glue and paper (side note: anyone else in love with the smell of used book stores? the older books get, the better they smell). I need the feel of them in my hands to truly enjoy reading.

At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself. Because that’s how it’s been for me for the last 30 years. Actually, I’m not sure that my owning an eReader is going to change any of that. I will always love paper books. However, I am willing to make some concessions to my ideals for the sake of three things…

1) I would like to be able to view my own books in their electronic form for the sake of proofing, editing, and plain old curiosity. Although I trust my publisher to make my upcoming novel as professional as it can be, I am venturing into the world of self-publishing for some of my novellas, short-stories, etc. and I need to be able to view them as they will be viewed by others.

2) There are so many lovely self-published and small press authors out there whom I would love to support. Many of them only publish eBooks, which is one reason I feel I need an eReader. But even those who offer paperbacks as well, I would like to be able to purchase in eBook format. Not that I wouldn’t love to have a huge library of hardcopy indie books. But eBooks make the difference between me being able to support three or four authors for the same price as one, if I limit myself to paperbacks. I want to share the love a bit 🙂

3) My wallet will (hopefully) thank me. Not only will I be able to spread my dollars around a bit more to show my Indie love, but I will hopefully be able to save some money on traditionally published books as well. There are some books that I am curious about, but just can’t bring myself to spend the money on. If the eBook is significantly cheaper, I may discover authors that I would have otherwise avoided out of uncertainty. I never hold back from buying a book that I know I love, but I’d like to take a few more risks and not feel like I’m breaking the bank.

So there you have it. My rationale… What do you think? Do you have and love your eReader? Are you a stubborn old goat, like me, who clings to paper books like the precious relics they are? Do you have an eBook that you think I might enjoy? Drop me a line, and post links in the comments. I will review sci-fi and fantasy on Cat’s Liminal Space, and others on Goodreads and Amazon.

Fiction Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian

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4/5 Stars

Well, Gillian Flynn has done it again. For me, at least. Sharp Objects is another gritty mystery that I didn’t see coming. I had some idea of what Flynn was capable of, having read Dark Places last year. And yet her ability to draw up a truly disturbed protagonist still surprises me. And, unlike Libby in Dark Places, Sharp Objects’s Camille is both more disturbed and more accessible. I actually liked her.

Now, don’t get me wrong. When I read Dark Places I actually liked that I didn’t like Libby. I liked that there wasn’t a single redeeming character in the entire novel. It’s refreshing and, in my twisted brain, realistic. A world full of shitty people is far more believable to me than one full of moralistic high-roaders and do-gooders. Call me a cynic. Sharp Objects is similarly set up in that there are almost no redeeming characters. But I found myself liking Camille, as well as her boss Curry and his wife. That’s not to say that they’re any less screwed up. If anything Camille has more reason to be a degenerate underachiever than Libby did, and I appreciated her ability to empathize in spite of her own issues.

But one doesn’t pick up a Gillian Flynn novel for a quick pick me up. You don’t read her books to feel good about yourself or about life. If that’s why you read, stay the fuck away from Flynn. But if you’re in the mood for something dark, if you want to take a good hard look at the underbelly of North American life, she’s a pretty safe bet.

Flynn’s strength lies not in her novel’s settings or her world building. We never get a clear picture of the town of Wind Gap itself, though we do see the characters’ more intimate spaces—bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms. What she does well is paint a fantastic inner landscape. She carves out a piece of her characters’ brains and lays it bare. You see everything. The confidence, the pride, the confusion, the self-loathing, all the twisted little things that people sometimes think and don’t like to admit to. In fact, it amuses me to read some of the negative reviews of this book and the vitriol aimed at Flynn for her “sick” characters, their gratuitous sexuality, their perversion. The lad[ies] doth protest too much, methinks. I was never mentally, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as a child and I’ve thought and felt some pretty fucked up shit. Camille’s uncensored thoughts could easily be anyone’s. If you are repulsed by this idea, I’d like to suggest that you are in serious denial about what goes on inside your own head. It’s either that, or I’m crazy. And while I’d be okay with either explanation, I’m leaning towards the likelihood that most people are way more screwed up than they like to admit.

Flynn’s characters are nasty pieces of work. You’re not supposed to like them, or even to sympathize with them in most cases. The people of Wind Gap are no exception. The town is rife with the problems caused by small town conventions and boredom. Alcoholism, drug abuse, hidden sexual excess, and cruel gossip all rear their ugly heads. And I’ve lived in enough small towns to know that this is more than just a stereotype, whether you live in a Mid-Western town in the US, a small prairie town in Western Canada, or a remote northern community on either side of the border. Granted, not all towns will end up with a double homicide of preteen girls. But all towns harbour child abuse, substance abuse, income disparity, cliques, and worse. It could happen anywhere, and when it does, people are always surprised by what goes one behind closed doors. Flynn is not afraid to show us what goes on behind those doors, whether they be in a character’s home or in their head.

I really liked Sharp Objects. It was dark, it was gritty. It had just enough empathy to make it feel worth reading. And the story itself managed to catch me off guard, even when I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Flynn manages to paint a very disturbing picture without, in my opinion, being gratuitous with it. And she gets bonus points for an ending that I didn’t see coming. Or rather, that I did and then allowed myself to be lead astray which is even more difficult to achieve. Rather than being disappointed in the ending, like I was with Dark Places, I felt Sharp Objects wrapped up neatly. It was satisfying, if that’s a word I can use for a book like this. It seemed appropriate.

Go ahead. Read it. I dare you.

Fiction Review: When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber

2.5/5 Stars

15793141I won When the Devil Doesn’t Show in a Goodreads First-Reads Giveaway a few months ago. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Barber writes a good crime novel. The dialogue was snappy and believable, the plot line was interesting and complicated enough to keep me and the characters guessing. The characters themselves are mostly well-developed and realistic. But in the end the novel fell a little flat for me, which prevented me from giving it a three or four star rating.

One thing that bothered me was actually the blurb on the back of the book (I won’t summarize it here, check it out wherever you like to creep books!). Granted this is more her publisher’s problem than Barber’s, but the description is inaccurate to the point of being misleading. It’s as if the blurb was written before the book was finished and Barber changed her mind mid-process. For example, there is no second house fire. The crimes are connected by a series of home invasions, the first of which ended in a house fire. Second, Montoya doesn’t make the connection to the laboratory on the Hill until very near the end of the book, when things are starting to wrap up. In fact, he’s not the one who makes the connection at all. Most of the book is spent following the path of an escaped convict and his possible cohorts.

Maybe this isn’t a big deal for some, but to me a crime novel about thugs conducting home invasions has a totally different feel than one about a cover-up at a nuclear testing facility run by the federal government. If I had purchased this book expecting the latter, I would have been sadly disappointed.

However, Barber does deliver on her publishers promise in another way. She paints a vivid and enticing picture of Santa Fe life and culture. Her characters are varied and interesting, from many walks of life. If she continues to use them in future novels they are the kind of characters that I would be interested in reading about as they evolve. I haven’t read the novel preceding When the Devil Doesn’t Show, which she mentions a couple of times. One certainly doesn’t have to know the first novel to follow this one, but I think I might seek it out just to fill in some blanks in the characters’ relationships.

While I enjoyed Barber’s setting and characterization, what I ultimately had an issue with was the plot. The initial plot, or what I thought to be the initial plot, had a lot of potential. But as the novel progressed, I felt Barber moved further and further from her intended story until it kind of became something else. It didn’t feel like a smooth transition. The more we find out about the characters’ motivations, the less the story makes sense until, in the end, the reader is left wondering what the hell actually happened to start the whole thing. The connections between the antagonists is pretty flimsy. We get a little glimpse into how they might be connected, but without understanding any of their motivations the ties are tenuous at best.

SPOILER: For example, what set off Martez to begin with? Competition between scientists can only be taken so far. Especially after the revelation that he tried to poison his co-worker and give her unborn children birth defects. This would achieve nothing in the way of scholarly competition had the plot worked and, in fact, would potentially work against him if the woman had miscarried as she likely would have continued working there. Doesn’t make sense. And as for his relationship with Tyler Hoffman, are we to believe that they had a relationship before Hoffman went to jail? Did Hoffman hook up with Lupe after his prison escape or before he was incarcerated? If Hoffman and Martez had no previous relationship would Martez really be willing to enlist his help to eliminate his competition at the lab, and would Hoffman have been willing to do it?  END SPOILER This is the point at which the plot kind of loses some steam. Lack of characterization of the protagonists, combined with the cliff-hanger ending, culminated in a serious anti-climax. I felt a little let down at the end of this novel.

The pacing was great, and the plot flowed well right up to the end. Really the last chapter is the only one that I felt kind of bogged down, and part of that is because I started to realize at that point that the loose ends would never be dealt with. I also felt that we saw a bit too much of the tertiary characters. They interrupted the flow of the main narrative and often didn’t add much to the plot itself. These extra snapshots would have been better used on the antagonists, to give a more well-rounded understanding of the characters and their motivations.

I will likely pick up a novel by Christine Barber again. At least to see if my issues with this book are consistent with the rest of her work . If When the Devil Doesn’t Show is indicative of her usual writing style, I wouldn’t try more than one more. But at this point, I felt her strengths outshone her weaknesses as a writer and she deserves another chance.

SF Book Review: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

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3/5 Stars

This first book in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy tackled a lot of interesting ideas and touched on some interesting subjects. Unfortunately, I had trouble reconciling Sawyer’s high-concept plot with his flimsy and contradictory characters. Much of the book came across as unnecessarily preachy, and by the end of the trilogy it was more like beating a dead horse. Of the three, Hominids was the most intriguing novel and ultimately why I chose to continue with the trilogy. Humans did little for me, and felt a bit like a bridge between #1 and #3 and nothing else. Hybrids had potential, but I think the plot got bogged down in Sawyer’s extreme social commentary. This review is mainly of Hominids, although I can’t promise that the other two novels aren’t colouring my perception of it in hindsight.

I have no issues with the science behind Hominids. Granted much of it went over my head, and I’m not much of a hard-SF fangirl to begin with. But it didn’t get in my way, and Sawyer seems to have a good grasp of the concepts that he’s employing. I just went along with it, for the most part. I did find it interesting to read now that we have a little better understanding of prehistoric relations between human and Neanderthal than at the time that was published. For example, studies are showing that most people of European decent actually have some Neanderthal DNA which contributes to our ability to fight certain kinds of cancer and other diseases. Neanderthal may have been absorbed by modern humans rather than wiped out. Interesting, but inconsequential to this review 😉

My issue with Hominds is really an issue with Mary. A Catholic geneticist studying human evolution? Her attachment to the Catholic church makes absolutely no sense. Her work flies in the face of her religion, yet she somehow manages to make excuses for the inconsistencies in her belief as far as it is needed for her professional self. Meanwhile, she gives her personal self little leeway, being ashamed of using birth control throughout her failed marriage and refusing to divorce her estranged husband for fear of excommunication. Throughout the novel she steadfastly defends the more ridiculous notions of her religion with a blindness that is disturbing to witness in a supposed scientist.

And Mary is not the only religious scientist in the novel. I don’t think there was a single atheist character, other than the Neanderthals. As if being human and being religious were one and the same. As an atheist, I found this a little hard to understand and, frankly, to stomach. I couldn’t tell if Sawyer was intentionally pointing out the inconsistencies between religious belief and scientific progress, or if he is himself struggling with two opposing world views and using his confused characters to sort out his own issues. Mary’s confusion distanced me from her and really just ended up being irritating.

Her religiosity is not the only issue. Mary is fickle in her moods and opinions, continually on the defensive about her own position, closed minded, and shallow. This is really difficult to reconcile with what we are told of her being a brilliant scientist. She comes across as a caricature of a woman: jealous and suspicious of attractive females, angry at all men for the failures of a few, constantly insecure about her own body, etc.

Her relationship with the Neanderthal Ponter Boddit is confusingly shallow. It is as if she becomes attracted to him solely because of her negative experiences with human males, whom she blames for all of the world’s problems. This becomes more of an issue in the later novels when we are asked to believe in their relationship without any kind of understanding of what attracts each to the other. But in Hominids it’s more superficial. Why would a woman who has been recently raped be attracted to the biggest, most masculine male she finds? Granted, Ponter is a gentle giant. But Mary often comments on his size, his strength, even his massive penis (which she catches a glimpse of one morning), while at the same time she seems to be repulsed by masculinity in her own species.

The subplot occurring in the Neanderthal world is really what kept this book alive for me. Ponter’s observations of our world are interesting at first, but quickly come across as preachy (not in Ponter’s voice but in the author’s). While things are different in the Neanderthal world, they clearly would not be suitable solutions for our own. And there are obvious issues with the Neanderthal way of life as well, as we see in Adikor’s legal fight after the disappearance of Ponter. Hominids provides the best balance between the two worlds where, increasingly throughout the trilogy, Sawyer seems to lean towards idealization or idolization of his own creation in the Neanderthal society.

Overall, I think Hominids is definitely worth the read. The trilogy itself is pretty quick and easy, and I don’t regret finishing it. But there are some serious flaws in the characterization that make it difficult to be truly satisfied with the outcome of the plot.

Indie Press Book Review: Asymmetric Angels by Essa Alroc

3.5/5 Stars


17182976I won Alroc’s first novel in this series, Strangely Sober, in a First Reads Giveaway. It was the first independently published novel (and the first review copy) I’d ever read, and I was a little nervous about it. But I was pleasantly surprised by Strangely Sober (you can read my review of it HERE)and even more so by Asymmetric Angels. I’ve read some great and some terrible indie press since my induction into the category last year. And Alroc’s novels remain pretty firmly near the top of my indie-reads recommendations. I’m giving it 3.5 stars.

Who should read this book? People with a dark sense of humour, a love of quirky characters and bizarre plot lines, and lovers of the mystery/crime fiction genres.
Who shouldn’t read this book? People who get hung up on realism and take themselves really seriously at book club meetings.

Of course, as with any independently published book there is a concern about editing. I think the hardest part of being a self-published author is the fact that resources such as professional editors are either paid for out of pocket (at exorbitant cost, trust me) or bypassed in favour of the less reliable, but more economical, beta-reader editors. Unless the author is very lucky, or very well connected, this often amounts to friends and family. So editing can be a major concern for a nit-picky reader (like myself). However, Alroc seems to have done a very thorough job with her editing. There are a handful of typos, but no glaring grammatical blunders, and nothing that got in the way of my enjoyment of the text.

I actually preferred Asymmetric Angels to its predecessor for a number of reasons. While the characters and plot are still a little “out there” for traditional publishing (a shame) Alroc has a natural skill for pacing. I literally sat down and read this novel in one sitting. She is able to tie together multiple character POVs, and jump between them, with the panache of a professional writer. Her pacing is better than many big name writers in the crime fiction genre, and her characters are infinitely more entertaining than most.

This was true of Strangely Sober as well, but Alroc has definitely tightened up her plotlines and reined things in a bit with Asymmetric Angels, and it works in her favour. Asymmetric Angels feels more grounded and focussed. I’m sure Alroc has a ton of ideas for Sal and her crew, but she managed to keep the number of capers in her second novel down so that we could focus on Angel’s current predicament. We get to know the characters a little better in this novel, and we get to see their softer sides which, after an introduction like Strangely Sober was necessary to humanize them. Especially Sal.

Dare I say it? Asymmetric Angels, though it pushes some boundaries, could easily be picked up by a daring agent/publisher, polished, and sold to the masses. The trouble is, finding that daring agent/publisher (if such people even exist anymore).

I’m not going to summarize the plot for anyone. The jacket blurb does that well enough. But I will say that I enjoyed Alroc’s decision to bring her antagonists a little closer to home. The ridiculous Reverend and his gay-bashing bible thumpers, though they should be satirical, are disturbingly close to the real-life born-again crowd. The battle between the drag queens and the holy warriors is both hilarious and sad. Alroc touches on other real life issues, such as domestic abuse and mental illness. Admittedly in an extreme way, but she doesn’t make light of these situations either. Overall, I’m very impressed.

My biggest issue with Strangely Sober had been the relationship between Sal and the over-protective control freak, Cole. This is largely resolved in Asymmetric Angels, first by separating the two so that Cole’s control freak instincts have to work at a distance and later by Sal putting her foot down once and for all. Thank the gods!

Alroc has clearly set up the ending to make room for another book in the series, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it. If Alroc’s evolution as a writer between the first two novels is any indication of what she is capable of, I think the third novel in the series will be extremely promising.

SF Book Review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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4.5/5 Stars

Why did it take me so long to read this book? It should be mandatory reading material for anyone interested in dystopian Spec Fic, or any SF for that matter. What Burgess has done here, in relatively few pages, is so mind-bogglingly brilliant I wish I could exhume his corpse and dance into the sunset with it. The language! My Bog, the language! It’s amazing how a little thing like inventing your own slang can breathe life into a novel in a way that mere imagery, characters, and plot could never achieve.

But Anthony Burgess was an asshole, you say! The movie was so much better, you say! A Clockwork Orange is nothing like the rest of his work, you say! I say, “Shut up.” I’m sure he was an asshole. I don’t care. Here’s a little secret about writers—the good ones are all assholes! If we wrote off every writer who verbally abused his family, packed his nose full of cocaine and/or bled pure gin we’d have precious little left. And they’re never happy with their work. That’s probably why they’re assholes. Embrace it.

(I have no comment on the movie. I’ve tried to watch it a couple of times and always get bored after Alex goes to prison. I’m sure Kubrick is doing some amazingly wonderful cinematic magic in his rendition of the novel, but I didn’t get it. I get books.)

In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess does everything you’re not supposed to do in a novel—he makes up words, his characters are putrid irredeemable shit-bags, he revels in the cruelty and violence of human nature without giving us any respite—and yet this is one of the most readable un-readable novels I’ve ever encountered. Unlike Riddley Walker, which I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count, A Clockwork Orange lets you slip into its world on a wave of milk and blood. By the time you realize you have no idea what the fuck you’re reading, it’s too late. You’re in.

No, there are no likeable characters in this dystopian tale of horror and ultra-violence. Why are you so hung up on that? Why do you have to like someone to be able to learn from them? Alex and his droogs are the bi-product of a violent and controlling world. We are supposed to be horrified by them. That’s the whole point! They are the street-level doppelganger of the very government they think they are rebelling against. That’s what is horrifying about them.

It’s not just the suggestion that young men are capable of violence—robbery, rape and murder—for entertainment. Burgess’ not-so-subtle hint here is that all people are capable of this, that to be good or to be evil is a choice. There are no good people and bad people, there are good acts and evil acts, and any one person is capable of doing either. In our lives we may make a combination of choices, some good and some bad, and none are capable of defining us in that one singular act. This choice is what makes us human, rather than animals (governed by instinct) or robots (programed by their maker). If we take away this choice, human life becomes meaningless. We become nothing but an empty shell. A clockwork orange.

Yet for most, the empty shell is a preferable state to the human who makes anti-social choices. We are the ones being condemned by Burgess’ novel. Those of us who value humanity only when it is subscribing to society’s definition of right and wrong, even when that society is as corrupt and evil at its core as the “evil” people it breeds. The only time in which Alex is truly beyond redemption in A Clockwork Orange is when his programming has disabled his ability to make his own choices. At this point, he has no soul. He is little more than an object, a pawn in the world to be shoved about by others—whether this is to his detriment or to his gain is irrelevant.

When Alex is reconditioned again, when he is given back his ability to choose, we are disappointed that he goes right back to his old ways. What we forget is that it is the choice that makes him human and alive. And in the final chapter we see an inkling that perhaps Alex’s days of bad choices, of violent choices, are coming to an end. He beings to see other choices, other paths he might take. Had he remained in his conditioned state Alex would never have been able to evolve. He would have remained a toothless monster—a zombie—until the day he died, unable to defend himself from the world.

Anthony Burgess uses Speculative Fiction exactly the way it is meant to be used. This little novella explores more deeply into the idea of humanity than many philosophical and spiritual texts I’ve read. And it is able to do so because it’s not afraid to embrace the inner asshole lurking in every one of us. No, it’s not a complicated thesis. But it is one that is too often overlooked and glossed over. Our world is built upon the idea that we can categorize and classify everything in it from pond scum to architectural designs to personality types. Burgess suggests that things might not be as simple as we wish them to be.

SF/Fantasy Review: Bitten by Kelly Armstrong

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4/5 Stars

I can’t even remember why I bought this book in the first place. Werewolves are not really my thing. Well, they might be my thing if the YA paranormal romance genre hadn’t had them declawed and neutered since the literary apocalypse that is Twilight. I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer’s “work,” or seen any of the glittering tween-porn it spawned. But I think it’s safe to say that Twilight ruined everything, forever. I steadfastly refused to be swayed on this point. Suck it.

Reading the book jacket and any plot summaries I’ve found places Bitten firmly in the paranormal romance camp. Why did I buy it? Was I drunk? Probably. I have no idea. Maybe it was the “erotically charged thriller” tagline that got me, at least I knew it wasn’t going to be YA. But whatever my reasoning at the time, I did buy it. And then I forgot about it. And then I found it, thought WTF is this?!? and read it.

And holy shit.

I might be in love with Kelley Armstrong. Like in the kind of way that might compel me to move to Ontario, stalk her, and try to suck her brain juice out with a green swirly straw. Not really, though. If that ever happens, it wasn’t me.

Now, that’s not to say that Bitten is without flaws. I found it really slow to start, for one. I felt no real connection to the first few casualties of werewolf on werewolf violence—though I felt I was supposed to. I found the sex scenes boring and mostly unnecessary (Are sex scenes ever necessary? Maybe not. But they don’t have to be boring). There was a little too much focus on Changing just to play tag in the forest—I get it, wolves are fun and playful sometimes; time to move on. And Sometimes I wanted to smack our heroine upside the head.

I think the idea of The Pack knowing everything there is to know about all the mutts (lone werewolves) in the whole world is ridiculous. There are like six of them in the Pack. They’d be lucky to be able to control their territory in New York (face it, they did a shitty job of controlling mutts in their own town). And I don’t believe for one second that Elena would be the only female werewolf in existence. Surely if she were such a coveted prize, werewolves would be biting women left right and centre for a chance at their own furry fuckmate. Let’s get real.

But! There was so much good and refreshing about this book that I’m willing to overlook all that other stuff. And I don’t do this lightly, believe me. First of all, Kelley Armstrong is Canadian and she doesn’t pretend that she’s not. A good chunk of the novel happens in Toronto, she references Vancouver, the Robert Pickton murders, the Separatist movement. And she does it without tooting her little “Oh! Canada” horn. Second, Elena Michaels is the best female narrator I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. She’s all hard edges and no fluff. She doesn’t just play at being tough, she’s a cold mother-fucker. She likes sex and doesn’t apologize for it, and it’s never implied that she should apologize for it (why is this so fucking rare?!?) She screws up, but in believable ways that are consistent with what we know of her character. She fights those animal urges for violence and loses. Next to Clay, Elena is the most violent and impulsive member of the Pack. She’s refreshing. Not always likeable, but refreshing.

Violence in a werewolf story should be mandatory. No one wants to read about werewolves as domesticated pets. And by that I mean, I don’t want to. A good werewolf story needs a certain amount of blood and gore. Sex is optional. Blood and gore is not. I mean, what’s the fun in being a werewolf if you don’t get to disembowel the occasional person? Don’t lie. If you were a werewolf, it’s the first thing you’d try. Okay, after you ate the neighbours Chihuahuas. Maybe. Why gloss over the good stuff just to become another bodice ripper?

I know, I know. It’s called paranormal romance for a reason. But why is that the only place to find vampires and werewolves these days? Who turned these once terrifying monsters into Valentine’s day fodder? Everyone has sex (eventually, I hope). Reading about it is never as fun as actually doing it, so what’s the point? I refuse to believe that there are that many women out there sitting at home not getting any. If you are, stop it. There’s no reason for your suffering. Then maybe we can take back the monsters for the horror genre. We miss them here on the other side.

Now, we’ve all imagined getting to rip the throats out of our enemies and chew on their spleen. I’m sure we’ve all imagined it. Of course you have. I’m not just some kind of freak. This is the animal impulse that intrigues me, not sex. Our capacity for violence is what connects us to and separates us from other animals, and Armstrong does a fabulous job of exploring these ideas. Both thematically and in its plot, Bitten is a far more complex read that I ever would have guessed, even if we have to forgive a few flaws to see it. I personally felt that there was a little too much emphasis placed on the romantic sub plot, particularly because the main plot was more than strong enough on its own. However, the complexity of this main plot is enough to elevate the novel to true Speculative Fiction from the dregs of the appalling sub-genric slime that is paranormal romance. A rare feat, indeed. That’s some sticky shit.

SF Book Review: “Undead Reckoning” by Mike Slabon

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2.5/5 Stars

I’m giving Undead Reckoning, a debut novel from Canadian author Mike Slabon, 2.5 out of 5 stars. This rating is based on Goodreads’ rating system with 2 meaning “it was ok” and 3 meaning “I liked it!”. Undead Reckoning is a difficult novel to categorize, falling somewhere in between SF and Horror and genre parody of the two, but I can safely say that it’s not a genre I typically read. I’ll try not to let that colour my review too much, though, I promise! Undead Reckoning was better than just okay, and there are parts of it that I really liked which is why I’m sticking with 2.5. But I felt the really good parts were dragged down a bit by areas that could have used a little tighter editing. That being said, Slabon shows definite potential as a developing writer and I will look forward to reading his work in the future.

I should clarify that by “tighter editing” I do not mean proof-reading. I was actually impressed by how few minor punctuation/typo style errors I found in the text. This is a huge challenge for indie press writers who often must rely on beta-readers to catch typographical errors, rather than professional editors (whose services are extremely expensive). I’m referring, rather, to content editing for pacing, clarity, and balance. I’m also going to question a couple of Slabon’s stylistic choices, which could have been used to greater effect with a couple of tweaks.

Tangent/ This review will probably be long. I apologize in advance for that. But I believe that new writers, especially independent writers, need and deserve precise and meaningful feedback in order to hone their craft. As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to come by honest constructive criticism and I hope that some of what I have to say will be helpful to Slabon and any other writers who may be reading. /end tangent.

Okay, let’s begin.

Slabon essentially has two different novels competing against one another in Undead Reckoning, and I feel that each would have been served better had they been given their own space. On one hand, Undead Reckoning is a kind of horror spoof. It’s a parody of the zombie genre, almost a parody of a parody it gets so goofy at times. Which is fine, if that is what it is. And I thought it was, at first. However, the hack and slash zombie slaying is used as a trope to move the subplots along, rather than being the meat of the novel. The subplots themselves are so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that blowing up zombies appears to be the only unifying theme (NOTE: the subplots are one area that could have been aggressively pared down without losing anything of the main plot, but more on this later). The effect is actually quite disorienting at first, and it took me well over 100 pages to get a handle on what was going on.

This is when I began to realize that there was something more to Undead Reckoning than the simple spoof I thought I was reading. There are aspects of the novel which move outside the necessarily simple landscape of a zombie parody and into more serious speculative fiction. The main plot of Undead Reckoning is layered with complexity, and Slabon ultimately does an impressive job of tying his subplots together into a cohesive whole by the end of the novel. But I almost felt that he was afraid to give his main plot, the spec fic novel, the attention and seriousness it deserved. In the end, the underlying parody novel, acted as a defence mechanism to deflect from Slabon’s “real” writing—I actually think Slabon is a better writer than he is giving himself credit for, and the dual-genre does him a disservice in his debut novel.

When we first meet our hero, NFL superstar Eddie Griffin, we land smack-dab in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Griffin is coming to terms with the new world he’s living in as he helps Lieutenant Jim Shrike with a top secret mission investigating Undead activity at a nearby abandoned military base. We jump right into the action with limbs flying and brains exploding in typical zombie annihilating style. Fight scenes are interrupted by the obligatory wise-cracks and expletives, but otherwise make up the majority of the first hundred pages. This brings us to the issue of pacing.

Nothing is worse than reading a novel where nothing happens. It’s boring. I think everyone will agree with me there. So a novel that is full of non-stop action should be super awesome, right? Well, not necessarily. For non-stop action to equal good pacing, a couple of things need to happen. For one, “telling” must be balanced with “showing”. Too much telling, and the action reads more like stage directions in a screenplay than a paragraph (or chapter) in a novel.

Player A enters on right, weapon drawn. Player B turns at the sound and shouts in surprise. Player A shoots Player B between the eyes and exits stage slowly. Curtains drop.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Reading these initial action scenes, and some subsequent ones, was a little like grinding MOBs. Or worse, it was like reading about grinding MOBs—I didn’t even get to level up or loot anything. And with too much “telling” there is little opportunity for the reader to visualize the world and the action for him/herself. Other than knowing that Eddie Griffin was a big guy who used to play football, I had little idea what he looked like. Same with Jim Shrike. This isn’t too much of an issue for secondary characters, but main characters and setting should be clearly defined as soon as possible (I’d say first 20 pages). Putting this off disconnects the reader from the text, and limits empathy for the characters.

So action is great, but too much action is problematic for a couple of reasons: 1) The “big picture” plot gets lost in the grind, and 2) The lack of “showing” limits character development and world building. For example: For the first seventy pages or so, I was picturing Eddie Griffin as a thick, ruddy skinned white boy with a buzz cut and Jim Shrike as a lean, muscular black man who didn’t smile a lot. By the time I realized that Eddie was black and Jim was actually green—my first WTF moment—it was too late. My original pictures stuck with me, and I had to keep reminding myself of what they actually looked like as I read. Which is really too bad, because minority groups are severely under-represented in SF literature.

Tangent/ I think it’s great that Eddie Griffin is a young black man. But I think that it’s especially important to let the reader know that he’s black, specifically because there are so few non-white protagonists in the world of SF and Horror. It’s easy enough to do without rubbing it in the readers’ face. In the first couple of pages, a single sentence such as “My dark skin did little to protect me from the harsh rays of the sun” for example, could have clued us in without being too obvious (the fact that Eddie is a football player wasn’t enough for me—I thought there was a pretty even mix of black/white football players, but I know nothing about football). I know some will argue that the colour of his skin shouldn’t matter, but I disagree. I think it’s important that literary characters are representative of the world we live in: there should be many races, religions, genders and sexualities, and we shouldn’t shy away from defining them as such. Otherwise the tendency is just to assume that all characters are white, heterosexual men because for so long, that’s the way it has been. I had the same problem in my own novel, with identifying my main character as female. I left her gender ambiguous on purpose, but found that too many people were confused when I did finally describe her as “her”. I later ended up identifying her as female early on and then emphasizing her androgyny after that, which was better received. /end tangent.

Another thing that I found detracted from the main plot was that there were too many subplots. Each chapter seemed to have a new villain or conflict which, once resolved, didn’t carry over into the next scene. While some subplots did end up tying in to the main plot in the end, it was impossible to differentiate between the two. Slabon gets extra points for creativity, though. There are some gems hiding in the confusion, lots of good ideas that could have been great if they were working on their own (Juan the spider demon could have been the villain of a Christopher Moore-esqe comdey-horror novel) but just ended up competing with one another for attention. Kind of like a mini-version of the genre competition I mentioned earlier.

This brings us to the two stylistic choices that I felt could have been used differently. One: footnotes. Footnotes are largely unnecessary, and interrupt the flow of the narrative. Unless you’re Terry Pratchett, in which case you have elevated the footnote to an art form in and of itself–rife with sly humour, supplemental story lines, and lessons in magic and/or physics. For the rest of us, 95% of material that could be footnoted could also be worked into the text or simply left up to the reader to figure out. The only exception to this rule would be for language translation if a word or phrase from another language is used without enough context to be understood on its own. Anagrams can be spelled out in full, and then abbreviated later if they’re going to be recurrent in the novel. For example, military anagrams like CFB (Canadian Forces Base) or LAV (Light Armoured Vehicle). Slang, military or otherwise, should only be defined by the context that it is used in not by footnote. I just finished reading Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, and I never needed to use the glossary once. Language is like that, we’re pretty good at filling in the blanks. Not only slang, but any words that were made up and only exist in the world of your novel should be defined by context or dialogue, not footnotes. Real words should never be footnoted. If you’ve chosen a word that is so obscure you doubt your reader will know it, use a different word. If it’s necessary, have another character be confused by it so that you can explain it in dialogue. Example: thanatology. If your reader doesn’t know what C-4 is, that’s his problem. Let him google that shit and give the rest of us some credit!

Stylistic Choice Two: Sound effects. Less is more when it comes to BANG! SMACK! RATTATATAT! and/or KABOOM! This isn’t a comic book. Again, this is just my opinion. I can see how the onomatopoeia lends itself to the parody genre, but I also preferred the non-parodical stuff, so that’s just my take.

Okay, I hope you’ve stuck with my ramblings this far, because now I’d like to talk about what I really liked about this novel. There are three sections of Undead Reckoning that really stood out to me. The first is in Keek’s lair. Slabon does a great job of describing the underground lair and entrance to Nabisusha. The novel started to feel alive to me at this point. And it is because of this scene that I feel justified in wishing there were more descriptions of characters and settings earlier in the book. Once I realized that Slabon had all this great imagery up his sleeve, I felt extra ripped off when I didn’t get it. The next scene that really stands out is in the Anomalies Amok fantasy that Eddie gets trapped in. Slabon shows real potential for world building here, and I’m curious to see what he would do with a high fantasy novel. Not only this, but the characterization of the AA players trapped in this fantasy are better developed, and the fight scenes better realized than anywhere else in the novel up to this point. Finally, the flashback scene explaining the fate of the Masters and Custodians—much high fantasy and speculative fiction potential is demonstrated in this scene. Again, Slabon is a much better writer than he gives himself credit for, or than he seems to, by hiding behind the goofier aspects of this novel. The complexity of the final plot actually stunned me, and I really wished that this main plot line had been more heavily invested in throughout the novel.

Really, Undead Reckoning had all the elements of a strong SF novel, but they were obscured by the sillier subplots and could have been enhanced by aggressive editing. Slabon could easily have written a spoof novel akin to Night of the Living Dead, a couple of Christopher Moore style comedy/horror novels, and have an SF trilogy started with the material that is in this book. It’s a little much for one novel to bear, but there’s no denying Slabon’s potential as an up and coming writer. I’d like to see him move with confidence into speculative fiction. Or parody, for that matter. But I think we’ll find that his strengths lie in those areas he was reluctant to meet head on in his debut novel—complex plots, intriguing characters, and fascinating worlds—and it’s my opinion that those strengths will be best realized in an SF or fantasy series. Whatever he chooses to do, though, I’ll be reading.

PS This novel and future novels need more ladies! Undead Reckoning was a serious sausage fest. I realize that half the world has been zombified, but shouldn’t half the survivors still be women? Especially with the reveal at the end of the novel about why some people turned and some didn’t. I doubt Slabon intended to make a comment about how fulfilling women’s lives are, and how many of us are essentially “dead already”. But that’s the conclusion I was forced to draw! I want to see chicks with machine guns riding on dire-wolves in the follow up. Make it happen!

SF Book Review: The Artemis Effect by Kasia James

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4/5 Stars

Science fiction can be an iffy genre to go exploring willy nilly. I usually like to stick to the beaten path (my own, anyways) rarely abandoning my tried and true authors. Most of my forays into the unknown (unless they’ve come recommended by a reliable source) have been disappointing. Sci-fi shelves seem to be a haven for poorly disguised political/religious allegories, plotless nerdier-than-thou techno-babble, and sagas of sexually liberated space sluts. Often some combination of the three. The trouble is, with such a vast world of possibilities before them, too many science fiction writers indulge in formulaic drivel.

That said, I’m glad I took a chance on Kasia James’ debut novel, The Artemis Effect. I was pleasantly surprised by James’ refreshingly different take on the post-apocalyptic theme (or should I say peri-apocalyptic?). Hers is the only novel I’ve read which actually looks at the breakdown of modern civilization as it’s happening, rather than simply assessing the aftermath. This is an interesting spin, as it allows for some truly interesting and engaging character development (all too neglected in many SF novels), as well as painting an almost intimate portrait of the individual lives that are affected during the crisis.

James’ characters are one of her strongest assets as a writer. She does a wonderful job of bringing Scott, Kimberley, Bryn and their circles of friends/family to life, drawing parallels across the globe as the story progresses in Australia, Wales, and the USA. The dynamics between the main characters and their cohorts are believable, entertaining, and often touching. Conversations actually read like conversations, rather than info dumps and uber-correct robotalk (another skill that many authors never master).

The only glitch for me, as a North American, was in the language used by Kimberley and Ray and the other Americans. James was born in Wales and currently lives in Australia, so I trust her use of idioms, etc. for the characters in these areas. But sometimes the Americans just “talked funny*”. Now, I’m Canadian, so I’m used to a bastardization of British and American English. These errors were very minor (we would never say ‘auto accident’, for example, but ‘car accident’ or ‘car crash’) and didn’t detract from the text at all. But it’s worth mentioning if you’re one of those colloquial-grammar-nazis (if there is such a thing). To be fair, this probably happens all the time with NA writers screwing up localized variants of English across the globe, and I don’t notice because I’m an ignorant North American. Maybe I should just shut up.

*Southern hick voice.

On with the review! The Artemis Effect has a unique and substantial plot to give a solid background for the character development. And I’ve gotta say, I had no idea where James was going with it until the very end, which is awesome! (I’d be curious to know if James is familiar with the novel Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, as one of James’ subplots can be strongly linked to themes in Griffith’s work) I love not being able to predict where a story is going, just being able to enjoy the flow. The pacing was great, there’s lots of action to keep you reading. The tri-part narrative was perfectly balanced so that each section had enough detail to give some insight but not so long that you forgot what was going on with the other characters.

Long story short, I recommend it. You can purchase Kasia James’ novel on Amazon, here. (Do it now!)

Note: I stubbornly refuse to convert to an e-reader and James was kind enough to humour me. She sent me a lovely paperback copy to review, for which I am eternally grateful. I promise, good customer service did not in any way affect my review. But I believe James deserves personal brownie points for being so accommodating. Also, check out her blog, Writer’s Block.