Sunday, September 30, 2012

Prince Of Thorns - Mark Lawrence

Prince Of Thorns
Book One Of The Broken Empire
Mark Lawrence
Dark Fantasy
At the age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath watched helplessly as members of a rival noble house murdered his mother and younger brother.  It changed him.  Soon afterwards, he left the Tall Castle, the home of his father the King, and took to the road with a band of outlaws.  By the age of thirteen, he was leading the band, remorselessly pillaging and burning his way through the land.  He plans to be King by age fifteen.  After that, he will “win the Hundred War, reunite the Broken Empire, and be Emperor.”
At fourteen, Jorg and his ‘brothers’ travel back to the Tall Castle.  Now of legal age, Jorg plans to take up his birthright as heir to his father’s kingdom.  But his father has essentially written him off after years of absence.  He’s taken a new Queen, who is carrying his new heir.  Jorg understands that politics, war, and life itself as simply a large-scale game.  He wants to be the one moving the pieces.  His father has other ideas.
This is an amazing new work of dark fantasy; ‘dark’ being the operative word.  If you’re looking for cute elves and sunlit glades, look elsewhere.  Violence is a way of life, and much of it is quite graphic.  Jorg is very much an anti-hero.  At thirteen, he’s quite comfortable ordering the burning of a village and its inhabitants.  Rape and murder are everyday events.  (Note for readers: while the violence is graphic, the rape is only referred to; it happens ‘off screen.’)  Jorg is not likeable; but he is compelling.
The world created here is solid and real.  There has been war raging among various kingdoms of the Broken Empire for as long as anyone can remember.  Alliances shift almost daily; attacks and assassins are commonplace.  Jorg is fueled by rage; feeling that his father bartered away the lives of his mother and brother for goods and alliances instead of mounting a counter-attack.  The narrative moves from Jorg’s current life to the events of four years ago, until the entire story is uncovered.  The flashbacks never sidetrack the story.  Everything that happens serves to move the plot and characters forward.  For readers who can take the dark edge of the story, this is a real find. 
Rating: 8
August 2011
ISBN# 978-0-441-02032-4 (hardcover – also available in pb)

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Ninth Step - Grant Jerkins

The Ninth Step
Grant Jerkins
Berkley Prime Crime
Helen Patrice is intelligent, college-educated, and owns her own veterinary practice.  She also drinks.  All day, every day, as ‘maintenance;’ and, often, at night, until everything disappears.  But she’s a “functioning alcoholic.”  To her, that makes all the difference.  Until the morning she wakes up after a black-out drunk and hears news about a hit-and-run fatality.  Unable to remember the previous night after a certain point, she has to check the state of her car for confirmation of the fact that she has now taken a life.
Edgar Woolrich is a quiet man who teaches high school math.  Over dinner out one night, his wife, Judy, tells him that she’s pregnant, after years of trying.  On the way home that night, Judy dies in a hit-and-run.  The police have no witnesses, no leads.  Edgar desperately collects statistics over a period of months, entering facts onto charts hanging in his home, trying to makes sense of what his life has become.  He’s convinced that chaos theory will somehow point him and the police in the right direction. 

The two lines of Helen’s and Edgar’s lives intersect again.  Helen is now in AA, and she’s working on the ninth step: making amends.  Against the advice of her sponsor, Helen insinuates herself into Edgar’s life, eventually growing to love him.  She’s determined to replace what she took, without telling him she was the one who took it.  She has no idea there’s someone else out there who knows what happened that night, until she gets a note in the mail, asking “Does he know you killed his wife?”

The note in the mail incident occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through the narrative.  (It doesn’t count as a spoiler, since this is part of the jacket copy.)  Up until that point, we follow Edgar and Helen on their separate life trajectories, until the inevitable meeting(s.)  As readers, we’re simply witnesses to the chaos created by seemingly small decisions in life.  Some of the chaos is unforeseeable, some is, or should be, completely predictable and avoidable.

Helen is clearly a damaged woman long before the hit-and-run.  Even afterwards, when she seeks help, she obviously doesn’t realize just how damaged she is.  Her decision to make amends by replacing what she took is understandable on some level, but hard to imagine in reality.  The resulting reactions to the information in the note seems completely bizarre to me, but I must remember that I’m an observer to all this, and not someone who had a huge part of my life ripped away in an instant.  Even so, I had a hard time relating to either character after these events, although the story kept me glued to the pages, waiting to see what happened next.  The pace is lightning-fast, with plenty of twists.  I’m not sure it’s realistic, but it is an absolutely compelling read.
Rating: 8
September 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25598-8 (trade paperback)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Death In Four Courses - Lucy Burdette

Death In Four Courses
A Key West Food Critic Mystery
Lucy Burdette
If you haven’t read the first book in this new series (AN APPETITE FOR MURDER) this review necessarily spoils some aspects of main character Hayley Snow’s personal life. 

It’s January in Key West, a time of tourists and snowbirds.  It’s also time for a literary conference.  This time, the subject is food writing, fact and fiction.  Since Hayley Snow recently landed her coveted gig at Key Zest, this will be her first job as food reporter and critic.  It should be the perfect opportunity to buttonhole a couple of renowned writers and pick their brains.  Or get an exclusive interview.  Either way, it’s a win.  The keynote speaker is foodie superstar Jonah Barrows.  Just into his thirties, he’s been a chef, a critic, a restaurant owner, and, most recently, an author.  His memoir is unflinchingly honest, and he’s decided to bring that honesty to (or force it upon) the rest of the food writers attending the conference.

His keynote address is pretty clear on this point, making many of the attendees visibly tense.  He essentially threatens to pull back the curtain; not just on food writing, but on many others’ personal secrets.  Clearly, this did not go over well with someone at the conference.  At the opening night party, Hayley has the bad luck to find Jonah, dead, in a pool.  Of course, her maybe-maybe-not-boyfriend, a local detective is less than pleased to find Hayley in the presence of another dead body.  He refuses to include her in his official investigation.  Hayley decides to look into herself, as she believes a reporter should, especially when the police seem to be focused on someone very close to her.
As before, the setting is really the star, with evocative descriptions of place that almost made me believe I could hear the surf.  The author not only excels at setting the scene, she’s very clever in advancing the plot and developing characters.  Even with the murder on the first night, the next day of the conference goes on, allowing Hayley (and the reader) to get to know various suspects/attendees via their participation in panel discussions.  A second murder raises the stakes considerably for Hayley, since her mother was with her to discover the body.
The author takes time to explore the real impact of truth in reporting and reviewing: how much truth is just too much; how much is needlessly cruel; and the fact that cruelly negative (even if true) reviews can impact both the writer and recipient.  Hayley struggles quite realistically to balance truth with entertainment and color.  Woven seamlessly into the mystery at hand, it’s ideas like this that make this series and its characters stand out as a bit more serious.  That’s a compliment.
Rating: 7 ½
September 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-23783-5  (paperback)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Hundred Words For Hate - Thomas E. Sniegoski

A Hundred Words For Hate
A Remy Chandler Novel
Thomas E. Sniegoski
Urban Fantasy
Remy Chandler is a PI working in Boston.  Long ago, he was the angel Remiel, a Seraphim, one of God’s warriors.  Remy fought bravely and well during the War In Heaven, but decided the cost was too high. He decided to ‘put away’ his Seraphim nature and spend some time living on the Earth as a regular human.  The traces of his divine powers that remain open to him in human form help him out sometimes with his investigations.  He’s not the only divine or partly-divine individual hanging around the planet.  Most have their own agendas; some work for specific bosses.  It’s pretty easy to spot each other if you need to do so.
On a very cold, early morning, a small group of men meet Remy while he’s out walking his dog, Marlowe.  These men are a group called the Sons Of Adam.  It seems that, over the millennia, this group of men has been tasked with keeping the physical remains of the original Adam (the one from the Garden) alive and protected.  Generations work tirelessly at this, until, one day, an angel arrives with the news that Adam – who never moves or speaks and in fact resembles a small mummy – is coming to the end of his very long life.  Adam’s wish, the wish that has sustained him for untold centuries, is that his body be buried in the Garden.  There are a couple of snags in this plan.  First, no one knows where the Garden is because God, in His wisdom, separated it from the rest of reality so that Lucifer and his crew couldn’t use it as a beachhead to Heaven.  The other problem is that the doors to Eden are barred to man.  To get in, one must have the key.  And no one really knows just where that key might be.
Remy realizes that this is one of those cases that might blow up into something, if not world-destroying, then at the very least world-threatening.  He begins to reconnect with some people (or beings) that might be of some help.  While he’s doing this, the reader gets treated to a real surprise.  A character assumed to be dead at the end of the last novel has managed, somehow, to hang on to life.  This begins a completely unexpected arc for this character that shows us more than I think we’ve ever know about him.  The narrative necessarily moves from earth to Hell for some scenes, then from time period to time period on earth. 

This is one of those novels you’d like to inhale in one sitting, then turn back to the first page and do it again.  I feel that way about the whole series, really. The books (A KISS BEFORE THE APOCALYPSE, DANCING ON THE HEAD OF A PIN, WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD) are obviously based on Christian or Judeo-Christian background.  If you don’t share those faiths, it’s fine.  There’s nothing preachy here; just a bunch of, for want of a better word, people, doing the best they can to make up for what they did before and continue on from there, sometimes helping each other, sometimes doing all they can to hinder the other person.  Any reader who enjoys urban fantasy, or paranormal tales with a harder edge, should really take a good look at these.
Rating: 9
March 2011
ISBN#978-0-451-46377-7 (trade paperback)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Slow Apocalypse - John Varley

Slow Apocalypse
John Varley
Science Fiction Thriller
Dave Marshall makes his living writing sitcoms.  It’s been a pretty good living, too, until the past couple of dry years.  With a wife who shops like it’s an Olympic sport and a daughter who’s grown accustomed to their current lifestyle, Dave is actively looking around for possible screenplay prospects.  What he finds is a retired Marine general, who tells him a very improbable story.  According to this General, a scientist created a bacterium that will solidify unrefined petroleum while it’s in the ground.  It was supposed to be used as a weapon against oil-producing countries in the Middle East.  But, as bacteria do, once this one was released, it mutated.  Now it strips the hydrogen off the petroleum, causing oil field fires.  And now it’s air-borne, meaning that every pocket of unrefined oil in the world is at risk.
It’s improbable, sure.  But what if it’s real?  Dave begins to see vague (uncharacteristically so) news reports about fires in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  Then the fields of Russia go up in flames.  The news is saying suspiciously little about it, and Dave is worried.  What would you need for an extended period of time with no access to oil or gasoline?  It means no personal transportation, but it also means no transportation for food supplies.  Obviously there will be shortages and rationing.  Dave brings together his former writing team and tells the story to them, just as a ‘heads up’ kind of thing.  Then he begins to lay in supplies.  If nothing happens, he’s got a bunch of stuff in his basement.  If the worst happens, he’ll at least be able to take care of his wife and daughter.

This story should hit people where they live.  Especially if where they live is a major metropolis that’s dependent on food and supply shipments from elsewhere.  Dave lives in Los Angeles, which is a desert.  Everything has to be brought in: food, gas, oil, and especially water.  An interruption in these imports, even for a week or so, would have a serious impact on life.  It’s fascinating – in a terrifying kind of way – to watch the various reactions to the end of life as we know it.  I made the mistake of reading the first hundred pages or so alone, at night, in my southern California home.  It’s written in such a believable way that I had to keep looking out the window to make sure the world wasn’t on fire. 
John Varley is a name known to scifi readers as a winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards.  This novel is science fiction in the broadest, best sense.  No knowledge of science (or even interest) is necessary to be drawn into the story.  It’s a story of individual people and their reactions to a complete shift, or end, of the life they’ve known.  It’s very much character-driven fiction, set against the huge canvas of what could be the result of our dependence on oil products.  For all of that, it never gets political or preachy.  Everything derives from the immediate need to survive for one more day.  It’s about what is truly important in life, and the lengths that a ‘normal’ person will go to in order to protect those things. 
Rating: 8 ½
September 2012
ISBN# 978-0-441-01757-7 (hardcover)

Monday, September 03, 2012

Precinct 13 - Tate Hallaway

Precinct 13
Tate Hallaway

Urban Fantasy
Alex Connor never expected to become a coroner.  But, shortly after moving to Pierre, South Dakota, she and her roommate, Robert, discovered that the coroner is an elected office.  Her education qualified her for the job; her opponent’s public dishonesty pretty much guaranteed her the win.  Her job mostly consists of hanging on to bodies until relatives and/or mortuaries can collect them.  Then she gets her first murder victim.  Or suicide victim, the paramedics disagree about that.  After one of them gives her a cryptic warning, she starts on her first autopsy.  About halfway through, something inside the body bites her hand.  While she’s busy wigging out about the fact that a snake is sinking into her arm like a tattoo, the aforementioned body collects its liver from the scale and walks out of the place.  Not the best way to start a new job.
Alex most emphatically doesn’t believe in magic.  She’s spent years in therapy (some of it in an institution) and talking antipsychotic meds.  All because she was convinced that her stepmother was a demon.  Her boyfriend, Valentine, spent some time in prison for assault on the woman.  Moving to South Dakota was supposed to be a fresh start.  But, clearly, there are things happening that cannot be explained any other way.  Ready to be fired or re-committed, Alex explains the situation to the chief of police.  She’s shocked when he calmly refers her to Precinct 13, since they handle this type of thing.  Arriving at Precinct 13, Alex is confronted with every single thing she’s spent a lot of time and pain trying to forget; and a whole lot of things that she never imagined.

This is a standalone novel, but the ending makes it clear that it could become a series.  Alex is a character with a very original relationship with magic.  She resists believing for as long as possible, but finally has to admit that it just might be real.  Her struggle seems realistic.  What seems strange is that, while she doesn’t want to believe, she immediately begins questioning procedure and making suggestions.  She’s alternately completely ignorant about how magic works and an expert in how to handle things.  Not the best way to greet your new co-workers, in any environment. 

The supporting cast is a varied crew of human and not-quite-human investigators.  Each individual has his/her own special ability or area of expertise.  There’s obviously a lot of room to expand on all of them, should a series materialize.  The narrative moves along quickly, and covers a lot of ground.  The Big Bad has a Plan, and it’s a unique one, to be sure.  The climactic battle leaves a bit to be desired, but the author ties up a couple of loose ends, subplot-wise, in a very satisfying way.  If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, this one is a fun and fast read.

Rating: 7
August 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24779-2 (trade paperback)