Friday, March 28, 2014

Empire State by Adam Christopher: An engaging mix of Noir/Superhero/Pulpy Sci-fi(?)

I know am late to this rocking party that’s got Adam Christopher right in the center – what with a couple of his novels getting nominated for the biggies recently and his hotly anticipated space-horror(?) novel Burning Dark soon to be released by angry robot this year. So as soon as I got the ARC for burning dark, I went and bought his debut, Empire State to dig through the media-generated hype around the breathlessly positive buzz that this “stunning mash-up of trending cultural touchstones” was generating – A pulpy sci-fi cooler by juxtaposing it against a crime/noir thriller not to forget the superheroes? Cool huh!

So –Empire State is set in two worlds. New York during the times of prohibition and another bleaker paler washed out version of New York, called Empire State that exists in vacuum. And most of the story is viewed from the POV of Rad Bradley, a forty-something, down on his luck private investigator who is uncovering the mysteries behind a sordid murder of a young woman in the dark back alleys of Empire State. Harking back a few steps, we start the story with Rex, a bootlegger in prohibition NY-city while trying to escape cops and other goons, gets in the middle of a Superhero fight. Skyguard and Science Pirate (full points for cool names, huh?) once-best friends and sworn protectors of the city are now arch-rivals and are slugging it out in the sky. But the fight leads them to burrow deep down into the earth – creating a crater in the middle of NY and opening the gateways to a parallel universe – the Empire State.

I wouldn’t spoil the surprise elements for you by expounding the details of the rest of the story – but after this start, we switch tracks to Rad who mostly spends time drinking ‘moonshine’ from a cup at Jerry’s, keeps a dirty front office for his day job, yearns for good coffee and wears a white fedora, shooting the breeze with his best friend, Kane – star reporter of the local newspaper at Empire State. Till the day that a rich high-class lady drops by his office to give his first good case in ages. To track down her missing partner. The case takes a bizarre turn as Rad discovers her partner’s dead body in a back-alley dump and gets mired into a conspiracy that threatens his world.

Adam writes engagingly well and we’re soon sucked into the bleak, pale world of the Empire State where the fog never clears and citizens quake in fear for the lock-down that the mysterious “commissioner” has imposed on the city. Beyond the naval ports where the “ironclad” ships sets sail to fight the “Enemy”, reality loses its sharp edges. For we don’t know what’s beyond that roiling cover of fog. Adam’s prose effectively conveys the bleakness of the situation that has seeped into the lives of people within Empire State – the shadowy back alleys, Jerry’s - the illegal bar where Rad drowns out his miserable existence in colorless liquor he calls moonshine and the ration on food – all of this is well captured creating that whole atmosphere of hopelessness, accentuating the “lost” feeling with imminent war looming over their heads.

Rad is a lovable main character. A tough guy who punches his way out of trouble with a keen sense of deduction but clearly out of his depths when it comes to the scale of problems that threaten not his own existence but that of the city he loves. The superheroes, Science Pirate and Skyguard frankly fizzled out for me. Captain Carson and his robot manservant Bryan made for interesting side characters and probably the dark humour would keep you smiling in the face of this impending pall of gloom.

Where the novel fails for me is the pulpy sci-fi part. Perhaps Adam didn’t want to get into the nuances of trying to explain the geo-physics and the impossibility of his near-cool concept of this alternate reality existing alongside with real NY. The narrative builds up the tension to a knife-edge where the co-existence of both the worlds come into question and then the last few gasping breathless chapters kind of cobbles together a muddled solution – with a lot of spatting and fizzing and electric blue lights – which hazes out any logical explanation to the whole concept.  

So my verdict: With a lot of cool things thrown into this hot stew – robot blimps, private detectives, superheroes, alternate reality, murder mystery and science fictional devices (notice I say devices and not a plot itself J ) Empire State is packed end to end with gooey goodness. The kind you will love and slurp on.
A good mashup of several cool elements penned in an engaging prose that keeps you invested in the fate of this bleak world, Empire State – this debut is a bold announcement of an author who doesn't hesitate to venture into the unknown and signals good things for the future of the genre! Kudos to Angry Robot books.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My thoughts: Wayward Pines Trilogy by Blake Crouch.

I am pretty sure you all are going to be talking about Wayward Pines pretty soon. July 2014. Fox TV debut of Manoj Night Shyamalan. Did that pique your interest? So hang on while I let you in on the blockbuster phenomenon that is actually a thriller/horror series called Wayward Pines by Blake Crouch.

If there is a word that captures the whole Wayward Pines trilogy, that in my dictionary would be Electrifying. Slick action thriller rolled in tight with horror, science-fiction and dystopian elements, this whole series kicks ass like no other.

I haven’t been itching to finish a series like this for a long time. Miriam Black by Chuck Wendig came close – a real balls-to-the-wall visceral experience. But this reading has been a much more wholesome and fulfilling experience. A fire that burns through and consumes you. A little shit-kicker of a thriller with plot twists and action galore. Blake Crouch really knows how to keep you dangling by the barest of the thread, crouched on the balls of your feet, ready to explode into action with every dark blind corner you take on this ride. It’s a confusing ride, pretty much like our main protagonist Secret Service Agent Ethan Burkes who’s barely hanging on for the ride – as jumpy as ever, suspicious and untrusting of every leaf that flutters, back from a bout of short term amnesia, battered and bruised beyond belief and an emotional train wreck. Almost two-thirds through the first book, this is pretty much how you will feel. Lost and bumbling like a wet rat caught in a sandstorm. And the storm blows like crazy before you find your feet.

This kind of thrill ride without any destination might turn off a lot of readers but for me, I loved the journey and I trust the driver blindly. God only knows why, but the Fantasy Book Critic review of both books was the stamp of approval enough for me to take this plunge.

As I said before, electrifying.
So a brief about the story from the first book and I will try and keep this free of spoilers as much as possible. Secret Service Agent Ethan Burkes arrives in the idyllic town of Wayward Pines in Idaho – surrounded by tall pine tree forests and insurmountable mountains on all sides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two agents who had landed here two weeks before  – he is involved in a horrific accident that leaves him with partial memory loss. But when he recovers, his interactions with the town residents, in particular the sheriff, makes him realize there is something wrong with the whole town itself. He also finds out that he is not able to reach his wife and kids in Boise or his handler within the agency. Dead bodies turning up, mysterious bar-tenders who disappear, a psychiatrist and a nurse who seem hell bent on harming him than curing and a whole town of kooks who love nothing more than shooting the breeze during day time and take part in blood fetes at night. It gets murky and weirder by the page. And things take a decidedly uglier turn when he attempts to escape the town. Book One, Pines is dedicated to him discovering the horrifying truth behind this idyllic town.

Blake Crouch writes a crackerjack of a novel that is so well paced throughout that I found myself distancing myself from my normal life just so I could read that extra chapter. I haven’t stayed up late night to finish a book like this. The plot twists are simply spectacular and they hit you out of nowhere. Especially the big reveal at the end of book one left me agape and thinking for days after.

Naturally I couldn’t resist the second book – again up on promo prices of $2 on Kindle and I went click-click. I was curious to see where Blake would take Ethan after that ending. And naturally my anticipations were sky high. Book two took my expectations and blew them away. While book one was a super-fast paced thriller purely from Ethan’s perspective – delirious, lost and heart jackhammering from all that fear and adrenaline as he stumbled from one plot twist to the next – book two widens the gamut of characters and we get a much rounder view of the larger plot at play here. It gets even much more cagey – a larger game of survival. With clear genre-bending elements that expand the world setting that Blake builds up, book two hits the ball out of the park. It’s very difficult to actually write anything about the plot without spoiling it for the readers unfamiliar with Blake’s first book on Wayward Pines. So I would let you as a reader – immerse and soak yourself up – in this entirely mind-blowing spectacular thrill ride.

It’s a blistering read and a thoroughly satisfying thriller that should strike the right chords with a reader. With a climax that ups the ante and the stakes like crazy, I cannot wait for the last installment in the series now. Plus with Manoj Night Shyamalan going to make his TV debut with this being televised on FOX debuting in July this year, the interest levels are going to be stratospheric. Hit the moon and back. Take the plunge and you won’t be disappointed! This one's a 5-star through and through. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Vicious by Victoria E Schwab: A masterful take on Superheroes and morality.

Vicious is a perfect book.

There I said it. It’s such a riveting work of fiction – about Superheroes and their morality. And mortality. Striking a fine balance between these two concepts, Victoria guides us along on this breakneck revenge-saga – a tour of the moral meltdown of two sociopathic mad geniuses who play at Superheroes on a singular mission to exact  revenge for a wrong done in their past. And all the collateral damage that affects this singled-minded focus of these two superheroes so caught up in their own invincibility and clearly a judgment clouded by hubris. 

Sounds confusing?  It really is not. It’s a wonderfully written novel that centers around two arch-nemeses superheroes out to destroy each other. Here is the condensed version of the story.

Eli and Victor are the super-over-achievers, razor-sharp students at Lockland University intent on outsmarting each other. Being social pariahs, they are driven to do bizarre experiments that include near-death experiments to test their weird “Extra-Oridinary” hypotheses. One experiment goes horribly awry resulting in a fissure that cracks and deepens over the next ten years – leading to a fall-out and thus making them arch-enemies hell bent on destroying each other.

Victor – decidedly our main protagonist is the withdrawn intense thinker whose disdain for his super successful author parents he expresses using a sharpie and blackening out lines from their self-help books to come up with lines that are simple depressing truths of life.  We first see him exhuming a dead body from a graveyard hell bent on a mysterious mission along with this “dead” girl for company. Eli on the other hand is just as brilliant and borderline neurotic as Victor but manages to hide under a smiling gregarious all-american exterior. Complete with a girlfriend with her own mysterious allure and powers.

As one of the major side characters of the book exclaims, there are no good guys in the game – and so with Eli and Victor. With great power comes great hubris. That clouds your morality and sends you spinning into a moral meltdown of feelings and values and ethics. By not painting them entirely as good or bad, Victoria drives a powerful narrative that sees us invested in the fates of these two ‘friends’. Her atmospheric haunting quality of writing keeps us riveted to this grand sweeping game of revenge played out over a couple of days interspersed with flashes of the past. This interplay of time really builds up the story and we anxiously feel the rising tension that spills out into an all-out war of bitter jealousy, tall ambitions and cruel intentions. 

Victoria digs deep – giving us glimpses into the minds of these two “superheroes” – their motivations and their own personal twisted interpretations of the various events that shape them. It is this fascinating character study that really propels the story forwards. We know it is going to end in the sad cruel death of one of them. But once you start the book, you’re dragged and immersed deep into this play of wits that you cannot stop. I personally loved the flashback sequences of them as college friends. The world is unique – perhaps a near-future version of our world but is relevant and exquisitely painted. I would love to see something else in the same world as Vicious.

It's an odd ball of a book: positioning it as an urban-fantasy or magical realism or paranormal would be an injustice. It is an unexpected package and that is what makes this such an awesome one. A unique take on the "superhero" genre, Vicious is a hauntingly beautiful tale of weird flawed characters whom you may not like but who will definitely capture your attention. It’s a brilliant work of fiction and you’re doing yourself an injustice by NOT reading this one.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cover Reveal: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

it's no secret that I have been a HUGE fan of Joe Abercrombie. Lord GrimDark of everything dark and gritty, I have been a worshiper of that pantheon since the times of the First Law trilogy. First he went on to skewer the usual fantasy tropes by writing his own version of a high-fantasy epic - complete with an all-powerful mage, a conflicted tortured barbarian as the hero and a crippled torturer probably being the most endearing enigmatic protagonist of that series. Pretty much spinning the tropes on their heads and then taking an axe to butcher them. Then came his version of the revenge saga. Tarantino amped up on speed. Full dark, no stars, no redemption, splattered with gore and black blood, the number of bodies falling hitting the stratosphere. Then was his version of the military fantasy. Again a bitter-sweet ironical saga that details the uselessness of war and that there are truly no heroes. written in his own inimitable style dripping with the black gallows humor that is so scathing and effective. Then our God turns his eyes on to the Western genre. And as expected, goes all out - guns blazing, knives flying. gold rush, the barren outposts, the harsh brutal life  in such times. All gloriously penned with a massive twist at the end. Perfect. So what am I saying? There is no genre that this guy cannot stamp his masterclass on.

Naturally now with him penning a new book - a YA? Young adult? Coming-of-age story? Ahem, would that mean less blood? since he's got to play it within the cordon of YA? I don't know but the truth is, am salivating. early accounts by authors whose craft I admire, say its an absolute masterclass. Patrick Rothfuss calls it Abercrombie's best yet. Goosebumps.

So well, here's the lovely cover.

And if you're thirsting for more (I know you are! you parched desert rat who cannot get enough of this sweet nectar, chuckle) - check out an excerpt on io9.