Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R.Carey

The Girl with All the Gifts is perhaps the most heart-rending dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction that I have ever read till date. A book that is pure gold and shines through the clutter that clogs the genre fiction today.

One of Orbit’s biggest US releases this year – it came in UK in January this year – this book surpasses all my other post-apocalyptic/zombie reads (Yes. Put The Passage, Reapers are Angels, Aftermath and Newsflesh trilogy down in that list please!) By far the most satisfying read in this genre and I’m not exaggerating. Maybe it’s because Carey decided to spin this tale mainly from the point of view of the protagonist (the Girl with all the gifts), a ten-years old sweet young child. It is a great move. In addition to making a reader bask in the sweet innocence of a young child exploring the wonders of the world and then slowly proceed to unravel mysteries and thus mature along the way, it also fulfills the purpose of lulling them into a false sense of security – thus making them more vulnerable to the shocking revelations that follow-up. And my word, the revelations! This book is full of surprises. They keep coming.  It’s a series of left and right hooks and jabs that keep pummeling you as a reader till the final twist just ups and then finishes off in an unprecedented move like a spike pile-driver and axe bomber combined.

One word of caution if you truly wish to enjoy this book. Keep away from the Internet once you start on this story. I had no expectations going into this one and that is probably one of the chief reasons, this book truly blew me away.

And now, if you haven’t read the book, then please stop! Consider yourself warned.

The Girl with All the Gifts features Melanie, a young girl in an isolated facility – going about her daily routine and slowly learning about the world around her – her classes on algebra and regression, the teachers ( Miss Justineau, the most entertaining of the lot who regales the classes with stories of greek mythology and the girl called Pandora, Mr. Whitaker who drinks from his bottle and becomes nice for a while only to get worse as he continues to drink…) and her ‘home’. Home is a cell with steel doors – leading out to a long corridor with two doors – one that leads to her classes and the other – another steel door that she has only seen open twice in her lifetime. She describes in captivating wonder about how every morning she gets up to the sound of alarms going off and sits up and waits for the ‘Sergeant’ and his boys to come pick her for ‘school’. The pick-up is at gun-point – where she is strapped into a wheelchair, her hands, legs and neck is locked in. And at this point, Melanie usually says, “It’s okay, I won’t bite.” With a smile.

It’s an understatement. The growing sense of unease and that mind-boggling discovery worked wonders for me as I dove in, sucked in by this wonderful strange child and her strange world.

 For Melanie… is a “hungry”. A zombie in Carey’s world where the body has been taken over and is controlled by a fungus, Cordyceps. Albeit a special one. The world outside the camp has gone to rot. With a zombie outbreak caused by Cordyceps fungi (the origins of the outbreak is written in glorious riveting detail like a David Attenborrough’s Discovery program and meticulously researched for the same as well!) the military cum research base could be the only solution to the problem of the “Breakdown”. For unlike the “hungries” outside their military base that have only two states: Hungry and rabid, foaming at the mouth and incredibly mobile or drooling, unmoving, vacant and listless, the special ones, like Melanie exhibit fascinating and intriguing possibilities.  And Dr. Caldwell, in charge of this research program believes that possibly the cure to this fungi outbreak could be found with these special kids. But as with all things go, the whole facility gets overrun by a swarm of hungries and its up to this final group of five survivors (Melanie, her favorite teacher Justineau, the evil doctor Dr. Caldwell, the rough war-scarred veteran Sergeant and the green novice soldier) to find their way back to civilization and perhaps find a way to cure the hungries. Will Melanie be their savior?

In what follows to a stunning utterly unbelievable climax, Carey takes us through a harrowing journey to the world outside. A story of a zombie-apocalypse survival. A story of gritty determination. But above all, it’s a story about a girl’s unflinching faith in love. A girl-crush that soon matures and yet loses none of its shine for all the bleak awareness that seeps in about herself and the “hungry” world she is in, Melanie’s relationship with her teacher, Helen Justineau has been portrayed in such a heart-warming manner that bowls you over. Without crossing over into sticky syrupy sentimentality – Carey does a commendable job of this. Also presented is the age-old ethical question of is it okay to use “high-functioning” zombies as lab test victims to find a cure?

Dr. Caldwell, the cold, neurotic, self-obsessed and with a single-track mind of finding the cure doesn’t hesitate in taking the extreme steps for science. (huh!) and on the opposing side of the spectrum, we have Psychologist Helen Justineau who vehemently opposes this ‘animal’ treatment of the kids- zombies with feelings and increasingly in touch with their ‘human’ emotions. A sentient zombie maybe a new twist on the age-old sentient robot trope but absolutely handled with master class unparalleled by Carey.  Carey, a veteran of numerous award-winning comics like Lucifer and Unwritten, creates arresting imagery with his prose of the world overrun by zombies. Filtered through Melanie’s eyes – the wonders of this strange world (Her first time in the wild watching flowers of different colors and the birds is absolutely gorgeously detailed!) blooming out, the world over-run by the grey filaments of the fungi outbreak – all of this paints a gooey vivid images that stays long after the book.

In terms of characters, it is of course Melanie and her teacher Helen who drive the book forward. Both very strong female protagonist but Melanie of course has this sweet blithe oblivious nature of a wondrous curious child who quickly grows up in the aftermath and makes executive decisions with ruthless compassion. Helen brings in the softer side of things – the human struggling to come to terms with her fondness for this sentient zombie kid with feelings. The others, including sergeant Parks and his deputy, the novice soldier are archetypal sidekicks. Dr. Caldwell does evoke hatred with her steadfast stubborn nature for wanting to cut into the kids’ brains for a cure but is a cruel necessity in Carey’s world.

It is a grim new world elevated to sublime levels of detail through Melanie’s curious eyes. And unlike a lot of zombie-apocalypse books that concentrate on the survival run with a lot of gore and guts spilling, this book yanks the carpet from under you by putting the driver seat in a zombie’s hands. And this book has a lot of heart. A tender relationship as described earlier between Melanie and her teacher forms the core of the book and this for me made the book a winner. The whole novel took me by surprise – and Carey takes this suspense and surprise element up by several notches until in the end, everything simply blazes up in an utterly knock-out climax that is unpredictable but in hindsight, just beautiful and gut-wrenching.

It’s a book that you should be reading in 2014. A guaranteed 2014-best-of-list novel, all that was promised is delivered and topped up. M.R.Carey, you have a BIG FAN in me!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Great Giveaway: Chasers of the Wind by Alexey Pehov (Tor Books)

Alright good people of the Internet, crawlers of the Almighty web and Readers of good fantasy, listen up!

Courtesy the awesome folks at Tor Books, I am hosting a giveaway contest here! And rejoice, ladies and gentlemen, for I have not one, not two but THREE Copies of the new release from Tor, Chasers of the Wind, first in an epic fantasy series from international best-selling Russian author Alexey Pehov !!

Here's the blurb:

After years of reassembling the Empire after the War of the Necromancers, disaster strikes again when the Nabatorians join forces with the necromancers of Sdis to take over the Empire, one city at  the time. Luk, a soldier who narrowly escapes the pillaging of the city when his place at the Gates of the Six Tower is attacked, and Ga-Nor, a northern Barbarian, flee the advances of the Nabatorian hordes together, finding safety in numbers. They encounter a married couple and Harold, the hero of the Chronicles of Siala, and the five set forth to escape and find peace within the Empire. The mysterious married duo, Grey and Layan, were once part of a secret assassin group until they took one job too far and now have a price on their head in the seedy underworld of the Empire. Unfortunately, on their way to safety, the group has made a powerful enemy in Tia, a dark sorceress and one of the Damned.
Instead of submitting to Tia’s will, the rag tag band attempts to kill her and ends up separating her from her mortal body, leaving her spirit to follow them, intent on revenge.

As Tia pursues the unlikely group, they encounter hordes of the undead and hidden magical talents, only to realize that the battles have begun to spread and nowhere is safe. Eventually, Grey and Layan, with the help of their new found allies, discover that they may be the only ones who can defeat The Damned and save the Empire.

ALEXEY PEHOV is the award-winning author of The Chronicles of Siala, a bestselling series in his
native Russia. His novel Mockingbird was named Book of Year in 2009 by Russia’s largest fantasy
magazine, World of Fantasy. I've got the first book in the Chronicles of Siala, The Shadow Prowler sitting pretty on my shelves and I promise to get around to that. 

So the Rules of the Giveaway:

1. The book giveaway contest is open to anyone residing in the United States or US Territories and Canada only. 

2. To enter the contest each participant must provide their complete name, mailing address, and email address by emailing me at Just send me something on the lines of  - hi, I want that damn book and tell me why. Nice things about the blog won't hurt your chances :) Retweets, funny comments and questions might improve your odds!

3. This contest begins June 21, 2014 and ends in the morning Pacific Standard time on July 1, 2014. Participants are limited to one (1) entry per person. So hey no spamming!

 4. Three winners will be selected in a random drawing on or about July 1, 2014.

There. That's about it. So if you want those grubby mittens on a brand new TOR hardcover that is the start of an exciting new series (The Cycle of Wind and Sparks by Alexey Prehov) - get busy and send that email out. 

Good luck to all participants!!

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig : Vintage Wending

Chuck Wendig continues to enthrall us with the third tale in the Miriam Black series – in the same vein as The BlackBirds and The Mockingbird. Foul-mouthed, quick-witted Miriam Black having graduated from ‘thief’ to ‘killer’, finds herself up against a shadowy ‘stranger’ in the humid swampy Keys of Florida, trying to outwit this mysterious foe who seems to be always one step ahead, sending her messages written in blood from her futuristic visions. 

Reading this book is like having a crunch-ball of a fist slamming into your head – that sends you reeling into some crazed-out mad world drenched in dripping darkness. The dark recesses of human mind soaked in blood-red insanity. Classic Vintage Wending. He pulls out all plugs on this ride – lassoing you to the back of a runaway train till the end of the book. 

 It’s like Wendig decided to outdo himself by going one notch up on that lever of insanity and grim darkness – then suddenly the winch breaks loose and then we are ratcheting up the levels till the end of the book. Packed with all the goodness that we’ve come to expect from Wending based on his previous Miriam Black editions, the chain-smoking, hitch-hiking, sharp as a switchblade bad-ass heroine is in top form in book#3. But this time, it gets down dirty and up close and very personal. For Wendig finally gets Miriam face to face with her mother, Evelyn Black. Whom in more ways than one, Miriam blames for her “FUBAR”-ed existence. And needless to say – it ain’t pretty. It’s hard edges, bleeding cynicism and rancor all over. So get ready for a self-examination this time as Miriam faces her personal demons, in both the dreams and reality. The unraveling of self for Miriam has been deliciously put forth by Wendig – powerful, intense and guaranteed to shock and awe. It worked for me, though am not sure if the same can be said of others.

But don’t get me wrong – in spite of all this ‘all dark, no stars’ approach, Wendig’s prose is unparalleled and an absolute gem.  Guaranteed to bring a smile even as you wade through the slime and muck of the Keys of Florida, trying to stay ahead of a blood-crazed mad-man on her trail.

The Cormorant has no redemptions in store for Miriam. And Wendig promises us that she will be back in “Thunderbird”. It can’t come soon enough for us foul mouthed miscreants and deviants who are fans waiting to sink back into this now familiar twisted beastly fairy tale. We can’t wait to see if our princess locked in her own tower of bad dreams and psycho-dark horror will ever get her prince charming and live happily ever after.  We hope not. Smirk.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bangalore Days.

Nope. am not talking about my life. Here in the IT Capital of India, Bangalore.
Am talking about Anjali Menon's latest movie, that has a heavy star-cast and even heavier expectations to live up to. Does it? Yes sir. Yes sir. All bags full. Firing away on all cylinders, topping expectations and making us fall in love with love, hope and all things good and hunky-dory.

A seemingly linear narrative that follows of the life-trajectory of three cousins being drawn to their city of chidlhood dreams - One for the job (Yeah. "software engineer". You get a chai and pazham-porri for having guessed that right.) One for Marraige and the third by his own meandering aimless choices in life. Events that crisscross across each other's lives, leading to some significant changes, heartbreaks, love and redemption makes up the rest of the movie.

So in terms of novelty, well we weren't much surprised by the end of the movie but the general boisterousness and crackling goodwill that permeates touched us. Samir Thahir's frames captures the spirit of the Bangalore city beautifully and the background music is an able ally to the whole script. The script? it does the job of ensuring that the almost-three-hours spent in a movie hall isn't a chore. But the characterization brought out through some nuanced and fine acting by the new-age heavy weights of the Malayalam movies (trio of Dulquer Salman, Fahad Faizal and Nivin Pauly. Add to that Nazariya, Parvathi and Nithya Menon, almost becomes a delectable not-to-be missed treat!) is really hands down the winner.

Anjali' script throws in some surprisingly gentle feel-good moments that tugs at our heart-strings. Like how the sullen troubled emotional-crackpot of a husband who scolds his wife for having "scribbled on the windows" - wakes up the next day to see sunlight filtering through the same colored "scribbling" smiles and leaves a note for his wife thanking her for bringing in some colors".
Or when the innocent boy who retains his village sensitivities naughtily reveals that he stayed up all night in his air-hostess city-girlfriend's apartment - playing games........"antakshari"!
Or when the rebellious biker boy realizes his chirpy chic radio goddess is actually a down-to-earth simple girl who is a paraplegic. and tells her,"I dont want to walk behind you but I want to walk with you."

The movie has its golden touching moments of emotional nostalgia that you would like to gift-wrap and savor for centuries. But it's the acting that really elevates this been-there-done-that movie to its stardom.
Be it the three cousins - Nivin Pauly, Dulquer and Nazariya turn in such a convincing rollicking heartfelt performance that convinces you to set aside your whatsapp and FB status message updates and be wrapped up in their lives' travails and joys. The three cousins each go through a lot, in turn discovering themselves in thier city of dreams, Bangalore.

Nazariya is perhaps the weakest of the three. A girl locked in a meaningless marriage to a high-flying M&A business head ( Fahad Faizal, easily the best actor in this lot turns in another powerhouse of a performance - playing the troubled silent man with bottled pent up emotional hurts) - Nazariya initially has nothing more to do than play her age ( a kid who refuses to grow up outside of her dreams) until the day she discovers the dead skeletons in her husband's closet.

Nivin Pauly has the best comic timing ever. I stand by that statement. He is a revelation in this movie - bringing up the much needed levity to an otherwise serious and sober narrative. Watch this movie for the sheer joy of his expressions. It is unbelievable.

Dulquer with his scraggly beard and unkempt hair plays the hurt rebel searching for answers for his life and finds that in both the motocross rally - an outlet for his anger and his RJ girlfriend who cools him down and gives his life a meaning. He is good. Taut as garotte wire and snappy as an irate cat, simmering down in between to be the big softie, Dulquer handles the transitions with aplomb and proves he is such an able putty in a good director's hands. Ustad Hotel was not a fluke.

Fahad of course is a talent powerhouse and gives us another file emotional roller-coaster, the man with the secret past, a sullen rigid business executive fighting inner demons. Virtuoso. I have vowed to watch ALL his movies from now on. Parvathi is someone to watch out for in the future - a little sidelined by her pair Dulquer perhaps.

Overall, Anjali Menon moves away from the humid wind-tossed beaches of Kozhikode to give us the brightly-lit streets of Bangalore - giving us a "happy" movie that traces the lives of three youths discovering thier raison-d'etre. Watch it for the smiles. Watch it for some excellent acting from the future of Mollywood. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley: A mystical tapestry that weaves together history, Gods and magic in a neat methodical manner that will blow you away

As usual am late to the party – The Emperor’s Blades released early this year and was touted to be among the best debuts in this genre for the year. A lot of marketing push by TOR ensured that this book was top of the recall across the Internet world. The sample chapters 1-7 helped. 
But ultimately, pushing aside the marketing-hype, it is the solid writing and a near-familiar epic fantasy story wrapped in layers of intrigue and subtle magic given face by three (Ahem, two actually!) endearing protagonists with their intense personal character evolution arc is what keeps the book afloat. It’s top-notch fantasy writing – an empire at risk from the machinations of something ancient and vast and the political coup that results in the assassination of the emperor leaving the fate in the hands of his three children. David Anthony Durham anyone?

But the similarities end right there. Brian Staveley’s world is sprawling, brutal and dark – and the first book that sets up the pieces for an intriguingly complex bloody follow-up gives us more than an eyeful into this world. A vast empire stretched over two continents with savages gathering up in the east borders, political imbroglio and sinister plots involving ancient races, Gods old and new, a deeply-thought out uber-cool fantasy-zen-philosophy. And Kettrals. giant black birds used for military operations by a set of elite soldier-group. Mouth-watering prospect, right?
The story-telling is flat-out entertaining with a pace that never lets up and hurtles you along as you follow the lives of the three different children ( probably the wrong word – as they are in their late teens or early youth and in no ways behave like YA should!) in three different corners of the world. Adare, the eldest of the three cannot sit on the UnHewn Throne as she is not male. However, the closest to her father, Adare is the key to closing out the conspiracy theory as she is the closest to the eye of the storm, right inside the Dawn Palace. However (and am echoing an general complaint that has sprouted the world over and am sure Brian’s making amends for the second book, especially with that fantastically mind-blowing reveal!!) with a comparatively much shorter focus and limited plot-wheels-moving, Adare is almost a wasted character.

But Brian truly kicks ass with the other two protagonists, Kaden and Valyn. Kaden, heir to the throne is an acolyte at the far-off Ash’kalan Bone Mountains – a cruel inhospitable place where the mountain crag cats are not the only predator the Shin monks venerating the Blank God have to afraid of. While the initial few chapters get you the gist of the “nothingness” that should envelope a Shin monk’s life, you’re confused as to why a future emperor should be leading an austere monk’s life training to shovel mud, build clay-pots and watch the goats graze. Hang in there. Brian wrings together a mystical tapestry that weaves together history, Gods and magic in a neat methodical manner that will mesmerize and blow you away. His interactions with Akiil and Pater, the two other acolytes there make for some entertaining read.

Valyn. Ah Valyn. Brian truly lets himself go with Valyn. While Kaden’s is a restricted life living amongst the discipline as imposed by the monks, Brian gets Valyn to be the one who experiences the most of life. Sword-fighting, explosions, intensely brutal trainings, an almost girl-friend, friends and enemies in equal measure and people called Leaches who can access magic through different “wells” – iron, sea, animals. I found him easily the most enjoyable point of view in terms of pure action and kick-ass’ery. A Kettral soldier in training on the remote Quirin islands, Valyn gets the most part of grim, brutal kent-kissing knuckle-bruising action sequences naturally. But apart from the furious training accidents that could go awry and life-threateningly so, Valyn’s POV gives us a bunch of elite black-ops soldiers with their gallows-humor. It’s a grey world with little left to cheer the people up but characters like Laith, Gwenna and even Talal with their sharp-as-steel banter bring a much needed levity to the grim proceedings.

So much for the goodness of an epic fantasy tale that delves us back to the form we are used to and still love. Comfort reading – couched in entertaining story-telling, making the most of tropes we can identify with, giving us a complex intrigue political plot.

I know there are the detractors out there – who cry foul at Brian’s treatment of women – namely his objectification of them as means to end for the swashbuckling heroes of the tale or relegated to being an important cog in the wheel, a cog nevertheless, to get the overall plot moving or the laziness of a world built by spraying random terms around (“Urghuls” who are savages baying for blood at the borders, Vested from the Romsdal Mountains, Basc and the Iron Sea, Tsa’avien Karamalan and jungle tribes of the Waist) that mean nothing to the reader. I agree in principle with all of them. I hold the same grudge against Brian. I got some more in terms of how certain characters react to situations. Valyn training to be a wing-commander sometimes is a lost puppy blanching in the face of hard executive decisions and disorderly conduct from his Wing. Kaden takes too long to understand his goals. And then suddenly in the space of a few minutes, seems to have mastered arcane powers of the mind. Adare, well the less said of her, the better.

But all things said and done, hats off for having given us super-cool Winged Avengers in the Kettral, the Slarn - monsters carved straight from the bloody dark of our nightmares, the awesomely cool concept of vaniate and Blank God, a new way to cuss (Shael-sworn Kent-kissing foulness!) and lots more – Ultimately a well-imagined tale rife with violence and Machiavellian scheming that hits all the right notes.

So I’m sticking around to see what happens next. Three stars for the Emperor’s Blades.