Sunday, October 31, 2010

Behemoth (Scott Westerfield)

(The Leviathan trilogy, Book 2)
Scott Westerfield
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The living airship Leviathan, carrying a top secret cargo under the care of Dr. Barlowe, has finally arrived in Istanbul... but not before running afoul of two German warships stranded in the Mediterranean by the onset of war. In theory, the Ottoman Empire is still neutral; though it has strong Clanker tendencies, its machines tend to resemble animals and myths more than the utilitarian German contraptions, making them more amenable to Darwinist sympathies. But the sultan, already gravely insulted when Britain's Lord Churchill confiscated a bought-and-paid-for Darwinist ship for the war effort, may not be open to Britain's diplomatic overtures, and the Leviathan crew finds more than a few German fingers resting on the Turkish shoulders.
Midshipman Deryn and Prince Alek have come to be friends despite their different stations and upbringings. For Deryn, she fears it's more than friendship; her deception as "Mr. Dylan Sharp" requires her to hide her gender, though more and more she finds it difficult to hold back, even as Alek confides in her. For Alek, their friendship is equally confounding; though he was raised to think of Darwinists and their fabricated animals as an affront to divine will, he has found a peace among the beasties of the Leviathan that he has never known before, and the rough-mannered commoner "Dylan" has proven himself a true and loyal friend. Strained by their opposing loyalties, Deryn and Alek must nevertheless stand together as they face traitors, revolutionaries, intrigue, and secrets that could change the course of the entire war.

REVIEW: The jump in the rating from the previous installment (Leviathan, reviewed previously) has two reasons. First off, Westerfield's steampunk alternate-history world has been decently established, so more time went into developing characters and their relationships here. Secondly, the previous two books I read nearly had me tearing my hair out wanting to smack the characters across the face and/or jab them with cattle prods to make the plot move along; after that tedium, Westerfield's more straightforward adventure tale went down very nicely. The action continues at roughly the same pace as in the first book. Westerfield continues to weave real-world details into his alternate World War 1 version of events. Like the first book, this one features black and white illustrations by Keith Thompson, which lend a wonderful old-school feel to the story (even if Alek still looks a bit too feminine in some images.) I found myself staying up late just to finish this book, and already looking forward to the third and final volume... whenever it comes out.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

The previous eight reviews have been archived on the website.

For the curious, I have finally passed 700 reviews! (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer's DragonArt Evolution pushed it over the top.) Well, it was a personal milestone, if nothing else...


Dragon Haven (Robin Hobb)

Dragon Haven
(The Rain Wilds Chronicles, Volume 2)
Robin Hobb
Eos (HarperCollins)
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons are back in the world... but not as they once were. The first of their kind to undergo the metamorphosis from sea serpent to dragon in centuries emerged from their cocoons malformed, many not even surviving their first year. But ancestral memories tell them of a great city far up the acidic Rain Wilds River, built by the humanlike Elderlings in the days when dragon and man lived in reasonable accord: if there is to be any hope of a future for the young ones, surely it is to be found there. With a contingent of keepers (castoffs from the Rain Wilds Trader families, so heavily marked by the mutations of the region as to be second-class citizens and marked for early death anyway) to help them forage for food, they set off into regions no traders have explored and survived to tell the tale.
Well into the journey, the tensions of travel and hardship wear upon dragons and humans alike. No dragon can recall the distance or route to Kelsingra, and even if they could, the land has been drastically altered in the centuries of their absence... assuming the Elderling city still stands at all. Even the captain and crew of the Tarman, a wizardwood barge sent to accompany the dragons as far upriver as possible, are feeling the stress. But tension isn't the only force at work. Between the harsh, acidic waters of the river, the rigors of survival, the close quarters, and the forceful presence of the dragons themselves, everyone finds themselves changing in ways they never expected. Yet a danger still lurks among them, a shadow stretching clear from the distant, dying Duke of Chalced - even far from all known civilization, the call of Chalcedean gold offered for a dragon carcass might be too great a temptation to resist.

REVIEW: Okay, not the most helpful review, but it's difficult to not give away spoilers about Volume One. Having finished this second (and possibly final) book, I stand by my earlier conviction that the Rain Wilds Chronicles was never meant to be a multivolume story. The plot suffers under the unnatural extension. At least half of both books boils down to padding. Characters prove themselves impossibly dense and self-pitying, mostly to boost page count as they prod old wounds and endlessly ponder their pasts and futures, all while refusing to open their eyes to see what's right in front of them. Even those few I'd enjoyed from the previous book got on my nerves, and it was only when I passed the halfway mark that they started to redeem themselves in any way. For all that extra length, though, the ending feels oddly abrupt. Hobb still presents some nice ideas, and I still enjoy her world's dragons and Elderlings. I just wish she'd written a shorter story, preferably with more likable characters and less pointless introspection.
(I also have to say that the cover art, with its unconvincing 3D dragons that don't even match the book, could've been better.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Boneshaker (Cherie Priest)

Cherie Priest
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold in the Klondike sponsored a technology race to develop the most efficient machinery for work in the frozen ground. The winner of the Russian bid was Dr. Leviticus Blue, who set about building his prototype machine in the basement of his house in the boom-town of Seattle. One evening, in 1863, Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine roared to life, cutting a swath of destruction under the city... and breaching an underground vein of noxious volcanic blight gas. The invisible substance boiled of the ground, sickening and killing those who breathed it - and turning many of them into "rotters," shambling undead monsters who feed upon the living. Downtown Seattle was sealed behind a great wall, and those who survived began a new, wretched life on the tainted Outskirts as they cursed the name of Leviticus Blue.
Sixteen years later, Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes, works in a factory in the outskirts and struggles to raise her headstrong son, Ezekiel, under the twin shadows of blight and her dead husband. Further compounding the issue is her grandfather, Maynard Wilkes, captain of the Seattle police, who made a point of releasing all the criminals from the jailhouse before the blight killed them, losing his own life in the process: law-abiding citizens were convinced he was on the take, while criminals still treat Maynard as an underworld saint. With so many voices telling him terrible things about his ancestry, and with Briar too embittered and exhausted to realize how fast he was growing up, she shouldn't have been surprised when Zeke took matters into his own hands. He sneaks back into the walled-up city with only a gas mask and a map, determined that he can find evidence to clear the name of his maligned father in their old house on Denny Hill. As soon as she figures out where he went, Briar sets out to find him.
The blight-filled city has long been considered dead to the outside world, but within the walls lie secrets - and dangers - for both Briar and Zeke.

REVIEW: I mentioned, a few books ago, that I was on a bit of a steampunk kick. This book promised steampunk, plus a local flavor (being a Pacific Northwesterner myself), and a touch of zombies for good measure. Unfortunately, most of the book reads like the blight gas: insubstantial, smoggy, and hard to tolerate for long stretches. Briar comes across as a cold-hearted woman who once joined an equally cold-hearted man in an entirely loveless marriage, then raised the resulting son without an iota of human affection or interest. Zeke comes across as the kind of idiotic kid who honestly believes that plunging blindly into a city full of poisonous gas, desperate criminals, and flesh-eating zombies will somehow make his life better. Not one person in the book displays anything but the most calloused and bigoted of faces, and few display much in the way of logic, planning, or basic common sense. The entire story feels polluted, clogged with stinking blight gas and crooked gangsters and general rust, filth, dirt, and grime; I felt like scrubbing my brain down with Lysol after each chapter just to get the gunk out. Most steampunk I've read at least presents nice, shiny-object ideas to contemplate, but Boneshaker fails on this front, too; the retro-future technology exists on the periphery, never brought into clear enough focus to serve as more than a vague backdrop for the unpleasant people doing illogical and unlikable things. As for the zombies, they're mostly a plot gimmick, popping up and wandering off whenever Priest needed to goose the action (and, likely not by coincidence, appealing to the bizarre popularity zombies seem to be enjoying of late.) The logic behind them left me scratching my head. If the rotters are as dumb and determined as is claimed, willing to beat themselves to pieces trying to reach fresh meat, it's ridiculous that so many of them survived for sixteen years. The blight gas itself is supposed to be a naturally-occurring volcanic phenomenon; the characters cynically declare that it's slowly filling the city walls and will eventually spill over and poison the Outskirts, then the world, so those who stayed behind in Seattle and learned to live among it are really pioneers of the future. On a planet as tectonically active as Earth, then, why hasn't blight gas already consumed the entire planet... or did one man's puny drill somehow unleash something that numerous massive meteor impacts and supervolcanic eruptions have failed to trigger? As for the plot... eh, I hardly cared whether or not Briar or Zeke found each other, since I cared equally little about them. Then there's the persistent the matter of Dr. Blue - whether he took money to sabotage the Boneshaker, whether he meant to rob the banks whose vaults he undermined in the disastrous test run, whether he may have survived... oh, but why bother? I didn't give a dang about any of the plot twists concerning him, perhaps the least likable of all the unlikable characters mentioned in Boneshaker. The final revelation made most of those plot twists - and the fretting that the characters did over them - almost laughable. As a kicker, Priest has a sequel out, set in the same universe if not necessarily using the same characters (Dreadnought.) Having barely struggled through to the overlong, eye-watering ending of Boneshaker, don't expect Dreadnought to turn up in my to-read bookpile.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Goblin War (Jim C. Hines)

Goblin War
(The Tales of Jig Dragonslayer, Book 3)
Jim C. Hines
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Necromancer, dragon, pixie invasion, and a brief stint as the chief of the goblin lair... the cowardly, nearsighted goblin Jig has been through a rough few years. Somehow, he's managed to survive, and even earn some respect from his fellow goblins - who still, naturally, would stab him in the back to swipe his boots, though at least they haven't tried killing him for a while. He's starting to think he just might live to a relatively old age, despite the burden of being a hero.
When humans raid the goblin lair in search of the powerful Rod of Creation, Jig's future suddenly looks a little less certain. Taken as a captive by the princess Genevieve, he and several of his fellow goblins find themselves far, far away from their mountain tunnels and deep into human lands. Not only do the humans tend to want to murder his species on sight, but word has spread of an army of monsters on the march, making for the very city where Jig has been taken. He wants nothing to do with armies or wars or anything but escaping, but his god, the forgotten Tymalous Shadowstar, insists that Jig stay in the center of action. For the coming battle may be about more than a clash of mortal forces. It may mean the difference between survival and extermination - for goblins, humans, monsters, and even the gods themselves.

REVIEW: I actually came close to shaving a half-star off the rating. While Jig's adventures continue to be fun and unpredictable, his chief sidekicks - the warrior Trok and the blindly devotional Relka - feel like lightly redressed versions of his co-stars from the previous book. Unlike Veka, her Book 2 counterpart, however, Relka never does clue in, grow up, and bring more to the story than being an annoying, sometimes interfering follower. Most everyone else shows the extra dimensions I've come to expect from Hines. I especially enjoyed how Tymalous Shadowstar came to the forefront as more than a voice in Jig's head; in some ways, this book is more about him than about Jig. Overall, the story reads like a finale, though a few loose threads from this book and previous ones could form the core of future stories. A good, fast-moving yarn, despite a few bumps and blemishes, that makes for a satisfying conclusion to Jig's harrowing, heroic adventures.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dragon and Herdsman (Timothy Zahn)

Dragon and Herdsman
(The Dragonback Adventures, Book 4)
Timothy Zahn
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The young human thief Jack Morgan and his companion, the symbiotic K'Da warrior-poet Draycos, have been through quite a lot since they met and formed their unlikely partnership. Though they've learned much about the forces who attacked Draycos's scout ship upon their arrival in the Orion's Arm section of the galaxy, they're no closer to discovering why - or how to stop them from exterminating the rest of the refugee K'Da species when they drop out of hyperspace in a mere couple of months. Having learned which mercenary group was hired for the job, Jack plans to break into their computers. The plan goes wrong almost from the start - but he's saved by an unexpected benefactor, the mysterious girl Alison, whom he met while impersonating a soldier recruit. When Jack and Draycos run for their ship, they wind up with Alison on board.
They flee to the primitive world Rho Scorvi, where Alison claims she has a planned rendezvous with friends. Here, amid the primitive yet peaceable natives, Jack and Draycos discover something unexpected: the Phookas, simple scavenger beasts that appear to be degenerated relatives of the dragonlike K'Da. While Draycos is still reeling from the shock - his people, after all, originated from far across the galaxy - the mercenaries turn up, eager to recapture Jack on orders from their powerful employer.
Jack, Alison, and Draycos head for the cover of the world's thick forests, taking a group of natives and Phookas as protection. Here, they will have to learn to trust one another... and Draycos will discover truths about his species that defy everything he ever learned.

REVIEW: A bit of a ratings dip, here, but still a fairly decent, fast-moving adventure story. Jack finds himself adapting surprisingly well to not only the primitive life of a Phooka herdsman, but to the K'Da code of ethics that contradict everything his con-artist uncle ever taught him. More comes of developments in the previous book, that the symbiotic K'Da are bound to their hosts as more than just a place to "rest" in two-dimensional form. I clipped it because it started to feel like Zahn was padding the tale, drawing out discoveries and bursts of combat. I also found Alison irksome on occasion. Still, I expect I'll track down the last two books in the series eventually.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Rampant (Diana Peterfreund)

Diana Peterfreund
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Every girl dreams of meeting a unicorn... except Astrid. She grew up listening to her mother Lilith's tales of the beasts - not the sparkly pastel-colored denizens of children's tales, but bloodthirsty, carnivorous monsters that rampaged across the ancient world. Only the unicorn hunters, virgin females of gifted bloodlines with supernatural gifts and inborn immunity to the beasts' venomous horns, could bring them down - and they did, running them to extinction, with Astrid's own ancestor Clothilde dealing the final death blow. Now a high school sophomore, she struggles to overcome a social life hampered by association with Lilith and her crackpot theories. They have to be crackpot; after all, everyone knows unicorns don't exist.
One night, sneaking out with her boyfriend Brandt (who just might take Astrid to the prom if she lets his hands get far enough under her clothes), she has a too-close encounter with a nonexistent unicorn. Brandt barely survives, and Astrid's world is changed forever. Apparently, unicorns aren't extinct after all, and they're making their presence known through increasingly bold attacks on wildlife, pets, and even humans. Those few who still know the old lore scramble to assemble a team of hunters descended from the old bloodlines. Astrid finds herself shipped off to Rome to train with them. Suddenly, all of her mother's terrible stories are coming true... but none of them can prepare her for the true life of a unicorn hunter, a life full of blood, violence, secrets - and sacrifices.

REVIEW: Killer unicorns? Any book with that premise is worth a look. Peterfreund based her unicorns on worldwide legends, many of which depict a far fiercer, less cuddleworthy creature than modern storybooks show us. Like faeries, unicorns have been softened through the ages as belief in them, and in the forces embodied by them, waned. The animals represented here blend old myths with a touch of cryptozoology, creating original fantasy creatures (or beings, perhaps, as Astrid learns that there's more to the unicorn mind than many hunters believe.) As the main characters struggle to understand the re-emerging unicorn population, some treat them as a wonderful scientific opportunity while some greet them with all the warmth of a resurgence in smallpox or black plague. The story starts fairly quickly, but it bogs down several times with sidetracks into rivalries between the hunters and other distractions. In particular, the link between the hunters and their virginity is discussed in exhaustive detail. Some plot twists are obvious (hands up, those who believe that a pharmaceutical company sponsoring a unicorn hunting institute doesn't have an ulterior motive), but others play out more convincingly. It took me several chapters to decide whether or not I liked Astrid enough to follow her through the entire book, though she was at least preferable to some of the other girls she meets in Rome. By the midpoint, the story had picked up decently, and it led to a nicely cataclysmic conclusion... which, as is typical these days, mostly serves to set up a sequel (Ascendant.)
Overall, while some of the characters grew irksome and the plot occasionally drug, Rampant promises some fresh perspectives on unicorn lore, and - for the most part - delivers on them.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Goblin Hero (Jim C. Hines)

Goblin Hero
(The Tales of Jig Dragonslayer, Book 2)
Jim C. Hines
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Goblin. Hero. The two words are almost never found in the same sentence (unless the sentence is "Look how easily the hero killed that cowardly goblin!"), let alone in the description of one person. Jig Dragonslayer, however, is no ordinary goblin. Abducted by a band of adventurers on a quest to the very heart of the mountain and the deepest of tunnels, he alone returned to tell the tale. He even picked up a new friend along the way, the forgotten god Tymalous Shadowstar. But while heroism may be a virtue in many races, among goblins it's a virtual death sentence. They won't hesitate to stab their best friend in the back if they think they can get away with it. Never mind that Jig insists he's not really the brave hero everyone thinks he is; the more popular a goblin is, the more potential assassins there are, and there isn't a goblin, hobgoblin, or ogre in the tunnels who hasn't heard the name of Jig Dragonslayer.
One day, an ogre comes to the goblin lair - not to wreak havoc and snack on goblin-kebabs, but to seek the hero of the mountain to help him and his people. Since the death of the Necromancer and the mighty dragon Straum, something sinister has been afoot in the tunnels, something that has even the massive ogres running in fear of their lives. The current chief Kralk sets the resident reluctant hero up for almost-certain death by insisting he accept the challenge. To further seal his fate, Kralk sends along two less-than-useless companions: Grell, the bent old nursery hag who would do anything to never have to clean a diaper again, and Braf, a musclebound brute who once managed to lodge his own fang in his nostril. As if that weren't bad enough, Jig is followed into the depths by Veka, the only goblin who actually envies Jig his heroic adventures. She once found a wizard's spellbook and a book, The Path of the Hero, and after obsessively reading both is convinced that she is destined for Greatness herself.

REVIEW: Another fun outing starring the cowardly hero Jig, I enjoyed it nearly as much as I enjoyed the first book. The goblins come across as both pathetic in their self-defeating, short-sighted habits and oddly admirable in their tenacity and the lengths to which they'll go to get what they want - even if what they want is merely to survive for a few more minutes. Jig continues to grow, and while he never embraces the role destiny (and his sometimes-tricky deity, who may well have been forgotten for a good reason by the rest of the world's races) has set for him, he nonetheless figures out that hiding away from problems in time-honored goblin fashion may well doom his people and the other races of the tunnels to extinction. I found Veka annoying for much of the story, though she, too, finds that she has much more to learn about true heroism than her little book can possibly tell her. Once again, Hines pulls off a satisfying ending with a somewhat unexpected conclusion. As implied by the final pages here, there is a third book out; I expect I'll read it as soon as time and budget allow.