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Book Reviews

The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell

(This review appeared originally in Bull Spec #7)

These aren’t your usual RPG heroes…

All too often the fantasy genre depicts heroes joining forces against an unstoppable evil that threatens their world, and they set out on an epic journey to defeat this foe and bring peace to the world.  It’s a formula that has served the fantasy genre well over the years.

However, from the very beginning, Ari Marmell’s The Goblin Corps takes that tired old cliché and turns it on its ear.

The Charnel King, a wizard who turned himself into the undead in order to gain greater power and to live forever, is defeated by the forces of good, and when he gets his revenge, the nations of the world unite against the undead lord and threaten to march on his lands.  As part of his preparation for war, he creates a Demon Squad, comprised of a kobold, an orc, a troll, a gremlin, a goblin, a doppleganger, a bugbear, and an ogre.

This unlikely crew is sent on various missions to further the goals of their Dark Lord and his queen.  The situations they find themselves in are amusing and gruesome all at the same time, often taking the ignoble route to solve a problem.  These goblins are wicked creatures, though they do betray a sense of humanity from time to time and help each other to survive.  The action is intense, the character interactions fun, and their views on the world often amuse.

However, any player of roleplaying games will quickly see this book for what it is, and that is a novelization of someone’s tabletop game.  It read like the original campaign ended at the start, then the Gamemaster decided that it would be fun to run the bad guys for their next campaign.  The missions the squad take are the standard fare of RPGs, such as “go find this spell component for the wizard” and “go destroy these threats to my power.”  Further underscoring this point is when Marmell writes that the group has 400 feet of rope between them.  When you know rope comes in 50 foot lengths (in most RPG systems), and with 8 members of the party, well, you can do the math on that one.

Don’t take this as a condemnation.  Being a player of these tabletop games, it did provide a level of connection to the story.  I did read most of the book expecting the author to tell me about dice rolls.  Thankfully, that never happens.  It only nagged in the background and didn’t ruin the story.

My only other point of contention with the book is in some of the dialog between characters.  Sure, the orc is crass and the ogre speaks in halting man-speak, but that’s to be expected.  What isn’t expected is a math joke (“Do you always speak in such oblique angles?”) with an answer from the kobold that doesn’t even fit with the world at all (“Call it a bad case of non-Euclidean grammar.”).  This exchange completely jarred me out of the story and it took me a while to get forget this out of place conversation.

Despite these flaws, anyone looking for something different in their consumption of fantasy novels cannot go wrong here.  Action, excitement, crude humor, and just plain horrible behaviors all combines into an enjoyable read that will fill the gap between denser reading material.

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Book Review: Ghosts of War by George Mann

I find Steampunk superheroes to be an interesting new trend in the genre I have come to love. Not many authors have embraced it, but George Mann took it on with his book Ghosts of Manhattan and now has continued the story of Gabriel Cross, aka the Ghost, in  Ghosts of War.

Mann’s second foray into the lives of Gabriel Cross and Felix Donovan is just as action packed and exciting as the first, with some new twists along the way. As Gabriel and Donovan uncover a new plot, this time to unleash a genocidal attack on the British Empire, we are treated to a continued look at Steampunk in Mann’s post-World War I world with biplanes and airships. Instead of sticking close to the overused Victorian home of many Steampunk writers, we are treated to a setting that offers new perspectives along with a new set of morals and ethics that people live by. Reading about the culture he created, in a world where Britain dominates world politics, is a welcome change to the status quo.

The technology used by the Ghost and other characters really add to the feel of the story, in many cases feeling more like mad science than regular science. Lepers with mechanical limbs, biplanes that launch using rockets from rooftops, and flechette guns with exploding tipped blades only touch the surface of the strange technology in use throughout the novel. This lends a unique feel to the story as you can never quite be sure what gadget will be pulled next.

My biggest problem with  Ghosts of War didn’t lie with the story itself, but rather with Mann’s choice in reviving the dimensional beast from the first book. While bringing creatures in from another dimension is a quite normal staple for most science fiction, their inclusion in this book almost feels like a desperate grab for something for the heroes to fight. Making a monster nearly indestructible and an indiscriminate killer lends an air of hopelessness to their cause that isn’t fun. Anyone who read the first book knows just how impossible it can be to destroy these monsters, and having one present through most of the book made me wonder how they were going to stop such a dangerous thing.

A few other holes exist in the story, such as how the monster in question doesn’t manage to escape until the end and does so in a manner that seemed to be available to it the entire time. Additionally, the mechanical raptors, while an interesting scientific nightmare, are never really explained in a way that made sense. I would have rather had no attempted explanation about their origin rather than the half-hearted attempt that was put forward.

Mann does provide some twists on his original novel. Filled with corrupt politicians and warmongering senators, we are also treated to the inclusion of a British spy. This in turn changes the entire air of the novel, making it feel more like a Steampunk spy novel and less like a superhero novel.

The novel is a fun time for anyone who loves a good action packed tale, and brings some new things to the table in the form of spies and a post World War I world, just be prepared to have to suffer through a nearly indestructible monster and strange mechanical beasts that seem too impossible even for science fiction. Overall, though,  Ghosts of War is a fantastic story well worth the time for anyone looking for something fresh and entertaining.

(This review is from Bull Spec Issue #6.  Other quality reviews along with great fiction and other cool stuff make it worth a look.)


Review Writing

Anyone that knows me well enough knows that I am very opinionated and will verbally tell anyone that will listen what I think is wrong with something.  This usually results in some funny comments as I run on about how such-and-such item is junk or how awesome something is that no one cares about.  This naturally evolved into me writing reviews of the music I listened to, along with the occasional movie.  These reviews were not the best constructed in the world, and they could be very amusing.

About a year or so ago I was given an opportunity to have one of my book reviews actually published.  You know, on paper with ink along with other pages with ink and bound together into a magazine.  I thought it was awesome, but let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to get there.

Since I’m an aspiring writer, I seek to become part of a community of people that thrives heavily on the relationships that form.  Editors and writers and publishers cross paths at some point, whether it just be through email or through an in person meeting at the Nebula Awards.  But you can be rest assured that they all read one thing – reviews.  The author wants to know how their work was received, the editor how their author is faring, and the publisher need to know if printing further works from their author is worth their time and attention.  Careers can be made or broken by reviews.

A well written review will explore the positive and negatives in a story.  It will be balanced and show how the good and the bad weigh in evenly and make a complete story.  The review will also explore how the story fits into the existing genre, how it changes the rules or how it blends in perfectly, becoming one with its genre.  But most of all, the review will NOT do harm to the story or the author.

I don’t care how much I read or learn, I may not always understand what an author intended in a story. Does that make the story inferior?  No, it doesn’t. Unless, of course, the story is so dreadfully written that it makes no sense at all.  Even then, you don’t go off on it.  You just say “Perhaps I’m not the target audience for this story.”  You get the point.

Reviewing a story based on spelling errors and grammar mistakes is amateurish.  Unless, of course, you’re reading a book that is filled with grammar and spelling problems enough that it destroys your ability to read it. Most reviewers are working with Advance Reader Copies (aka ARCs) that are filled with spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and in some cases, entire pages missing, so in those cases we cannot even mention it because its not the finished work.  The ARC for Andrew Mayer’s The Falling Machine was page after page of bad spelling, incorrect words, and jumbled up grammar.  But I couldn’t judge it on that, since it wasn’t the official release (which, by the way, is much better).

Blowing something out of the water merely because you don’t like the formatting of the pages is also not the reviewers job, unless it also detracts from your ability to read it.  Once again, chances are good you have an ARC, so what you have and what may be on the shelf upon release may be two different things.

In all my reviewing, I’ve read some really bad stuff.  Many times I had to force myself to finish the story so I could write an honest review.  You can’t review something you’ve only read half of.  Some of those awful stories actually turned out better at the end, too.  It’s considered unprofessional to half-read a story and then review it, and worse, comment on a public forum about the problems with the story when you haven’t even read it all the way through.  Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind only came together at the end of the book, so if you only read half of it, of course you would think the story is weak.

Now, if all you want to do is review stories and have them posted to websites and the like, then do what you want.  However, if you want to pursue a writing career, and you are using reviewing as a springboard to get your name exposure, then you need to be politic.  If you write destructive reviews for years, and then one day decide to try to get a book of your own published, think about what might happen.  The editor may see your name and think “Oh, I know who this jackass is,” and just issue a rejection notice without even a look at your manuscript.  An author who may have liked your work and would help you promote it may remember you bad mouthing their book and look the other way.

Relationships.

Remember, doctors are to do no harm.

Likeeise, reviewers should do no harm.

Because you never know who might actually be paying attention.


Book Review: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder

This is the third review of mine published in Bull Spec #5

After completing The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, I was anxious to get my hands on the next book in this series, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.  Despite my dislike of the time travel element in the first book, I felt certain I wouldn’t have to contend with it in the second book.

Of course, I was dead wrong.  But, in a delightful twist, the time travel element takes on a new direction that works toward cleaning up the mess it caused.  In the Clockwork Man, we find many references to the fact that yes, the time traveler did mess things up.  However, in doing so, he created two separate timelines.  As a result, things are unstable in this newer universe, and everything is struggling to right itself back into line with the original.  This results in mental abilities like clairvoyance, odd/mad science, and unexpectedly, interlopers from the original timeline, people with psychic powers that can influence others in the new timeline.

Confused yet?  Good, because I was confused as well through a good portion of the book.  Don’t take this as a bad thing.  Once again, Hodder is skilled at giving you enough information to keep you reading.  The story is deep and complex with threads running throughout that keep you guessing and leaving you never quite sure of what sort of ending will come about.  Characters die or take horrible wounds and make you worry about some of your favorite people vanishing from the story.

Once again, the interactions between the unlikely pair of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne are a great source of entertainment.  Despite being two drastically different personalities, Hodder has brought them together in a fun and satisfying manner.

Along with the psychics and clockwork men with Babbage devices (think computer) inside them, Hodder introduces a new element.  Zombies.  But don’t think that these zombies are the normal mindless flesh-eating shambling dead we see everywhere.  These zombies aren’t plague infested or even long-dead bodies risen from the grave.  This time, they have been stripped of their soul, but retain their ability to talk and think.  Even if they are just looking for their next meal.  Hodder’s zombies are unique (and amusing) in that they are still well dressed and polite citizens of the British Empire, to the point of apologizing as they try to steal the life from their prey.

To its credit, the Clockwork Man is a fast-paced book that will delight anyone who is a big fan of Steampunk or twisted versions of British history.  Good humor breaks the tension at the right times, and the character interactions make it worth reading every word.  The time travel problems I had with the first book were quickly eliminated as I dug into the story and found the author was working to make it all make sense in his grand design.  I admit, the inclusion of zombies felt rather cliche at first, but after reading a little more, found them to be a welcome addition.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, and still left me with enough unanswered questions that I cannot wait to get into the next volume in the series, The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, which, as of yet, does not have an anticipated release date.


Book Review: The Falling Machine (Society of Steam I) by Andrew Mayer

This is another review printed in Bull Spec #5.  Just go buy it, already!

Just when you think no original ideas could come out of a Steampunk story, along comes Andrew Mayer to prove us wrong.  In the first novel of the Society of Steam series, The Falling Machine, we are treated to a Victorian Manhattan where men dress up in costumes and harness the power of steam to fight crime.  High powered guns, flying machines, and other strange devices round out this fresh new take on the Steampunk genre.

The good guys are part of an organization known as the Paragons.  One of their members is a walking, talking, thinking, and semi-sentient automaton known as Tom.  When Sir Dennis Darby, the leader of the Paragons and Tom’s creator, is killed, the leadership of the organization comes into question.  The membership squabbles and fights over who is to be named their leader, ignoring the successor named by Darby in his final statement to the organization.  This creates a rift in the Paragons.

Sarah Stanton is promoted as the main character of the story, but only appears in about a quarter of the book.  At the end of the book she finally moves into a position of interest.  The book more closely follows Tom as he deals with the loss of his creator, and his subsequent difficulties as people struggle to trust a living machine.  As a result, I never connected with Sarah, except to sympathize with her as her overbearing father bullies her around.  The book would have been more interesting had we followed Sarah.

Sarah’s father, Alexander Stanton, aka The Industrialist, is another point of contention in the story.  All of the Paragons are corrupt in some way, but he seems to be one of the worst as we see how he manipulates people and situations to his benefit.  A trait that is very human, but not very superhero-like.  I found all of the Paragons unlikable (aside from Tom since he is now an outcast and not really one of their number) and as a result I found myself wishing all of them would be taken down.

The biggest flaw in this book was that it ended too quickly.  At the end hardly anything was resolved and I felt that there should have been so much more.  Sarah has blossomed into something new, then runs off into the night.  The Paragons are in disarray.  There is a traitor in their midst, and a very likable character who could have brought all of this to a close is dead.  Characters finding themselves caught in extenuating circumstances and being accused of things they didn’t do gets tedious when repeated, especially within thirty pages of the first instance.  You want the characters to see how foolish they are for jumping to conclusions, but, alas, it never happens.  In this case, The Falling Machine stumbles and never quite gets back on its feet.  A series book should stand on its own, and this book doesn’t do that.

If you are looking for something new and original in the Steampunk arena, look no further than The Falling Machine.  Superheroes, steam powered-weapons and machine, along with excellent action and story make for a memorable tale.  Just be prepared to be left hanging at the end.  The Falling Machine is due from Pyr Books in May of 2011.


Book Review: The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick

This review is in the current issue of Bull Spec Magazine, Issue #5.  Go buy it.  Now. 🙂

Any reader of Steampunk fiction is used to the traditional setting – Victorian London.  However, while this familiarity makes it easy for many writers to pen fiction in the genre, it does lend itself to being rather humdrum and predictable.  However, in The Buntline Special, Mike Resnick moves away from jolly old England, and instead places it in the Weird West (notice, I didn’t say the Wild West).  Pulling in well known American Western heroes like the Earps and Doc Holliday, he paints a picture of a Tombstone Arizona that might have been, and a past that never was.

Fans of the venerable heroes may take offense to the book in that their lives are painted in such a different light.  I can say without a doubt that Resnick worked hard to maintain the individual characters.  They are only slightly different since the setting isn’t exactly their normal stomping grounds.  Additionally, Thomas Edison has been sent to Tombstone to work on his inventions (and to find a way to stop American Indian magic).  Working with Edison is Ned Buntline, not just a dime novelist, but a craftsman and inventor like Edison.

The story builds up, holding onto many events leading up to the famed gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  In attendance is Johnny Ringo (now a zombie) and Bat Masterson (cursed by Geronimo to, well, turn into a bat).  When the Earps (and Holliday) and the Cowboys clash in the alley in Tombstone, the full force of the setting comes to life when crazy weapons and lightweight brass armor come into play.  These strange technologies do not alter the events too much from our real world stories, though, keeping a sense of the familiar in play.

I found the entire book extremely fun to read, and I plowed through its pages in just under a few days.  The characterization was overall light, relying on the reader to know who these people were before they opened the book, but still helped someone unfamiliar with the characters get an idea of what they were about.  Also, while knowledge of the story revolving around the Earps and the Cowboys in Tombstone helps the reader establish themselves early, it isn’t a requirement to enjoy this book.

My biggest gripe comes in the quick ending.  It’s true that in the days of the old west that many disputes were solved quickly and fatally at high noon with pistols, and that is definitely how this book wraps up its final dispute.  However, with the amount of tension built up between the two characters, I would have preferred it to be a little more exciting.  Sure, we know that Ringo and Holliday will be squaring off at some point to determine who is the best gunslinger. I would’ve preferred it to drag out at least a few more pages and not end so suddenly.

Buntline Special is a fun and fast read, one I recommend to anyone who is a fan of Steampunk, the old west, or just wants to read a vastly different take on the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  The change of setting makes for something original and different for people who think they’ve read all that Steampunk has to offer.


Book Review: The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder

This review is printed in Bull Spec Issue #4, which is the current issue available on newsstands.  You really should have purchased a copy by now.

The hallmark of all speculative fiction is the question “what if?” In The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, we get to explore one such question: What if Edward Oxford had managed to assassinate Queen Victoria in 1840? How would the world have changed if that one event had turned out differently?

From the very start, you get the feeling that the nineteenth century London that Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne live in isn’t the Victorian setting we expect. Albert is King of the British Empire, for starters, and Victoria is long-dead. We are treated to steam powered velocipedes, flying rotorchairs, and genetically engineered messenger animals—specifically, constantly hungry dogs and foul-mouthed parakeets. No, this isn’ t your garden variety Victorian steampunk setting, but the result is a wonderful and almost fantastical place where science has progressed in miraculous leaps.

But how did all this come into existence in the short twenty-one years since the death of Queen Victoria? It does lead to a lot of questions, and Hodder went to great lengths to make sure the story in Spring-Heeled Jack was as complicated and twisted as possible, keeping you on your toes as you continue reading, hoping to puzzle out some new plot element he tossed in. Even the end of the book was not easy to predict, especially when he introduces yet another plot element—time travel.

The scientists of this time line aren’t the inventors of time travel. Its source is a traveler from the future, coming to the past to prevent an event from happening. The introduction of the time traveler starts to knit the story together. Answers to questions start to take shape, such as how such advanced knowledge could be possible in 1861, or how some people seem to be in several places at once. And while I can tell this element was an integral part of the complex plot, it felt severely out of place in a steampunk world.

The real polish in this book comes from the effort Hodder put into researching this story, allowing him to delve deep into minute details, things that make a story come alive on the pages. The people, places, and events of London 1861 exist, but with differences reflected in the changed world they live in. Burton and Swinburne in particular were a joy to read about, their interactions and attitudes toward life in their London and abroad. Humor from the duo is well timed and helps break up the tension in many areas of the book. All of the characters were enjoyable, even the villains in their mad scientist ways and actions.

This is an action packed and exciting read, just be ready to get over the time travel hurdle, which may be a turn off to some steampunk purists. Hodder’s knowledge of British history shines through in this epic piece and casts a new look at a steampunk London that could have been. Gripping to the last, the book leaves you wanting to read more of their adventures. The wait will not be long: Burton and Swinburne will return in Hodder’s next novel, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, due out in March of 2011.