Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Age of Iron by Angus Watson

Writing historical fiction can be daunting and exciting in equal measures. Especially when it is about times little known. Like the times before the birth of Christ. Right. The dark before the dark ages.

Author Angus Watson uses this opportunity along with painstaking research findings from his life body of work - to give us the tales of the Iron age in his debut book - Orbit's latest, Age of Iron set in South Great Britain circa 61 B.C. Sound interesting ? You bet it is.

A ride on the dark side of time - before the world had settled into it's rails - and set in the wildly exciting and highly conflict-ridden realms of an unexplored Great Britain - how wonderful is that, thought I as I requested for a Galley Copy of this book.

And as soon as I cracked open the book, I was swept headlong into the twisty proceedings. Right from the initial battle scenes of Barton where King Zadar's sweeping army routes the ill-trained and ill-equipped rag-tag army ( "A group of mad boys slaughtering geese") put together by mad superstitious druids  - Where we first meet Dug Sealskinner "A down-on-his-luck mercenary travelling south to join up with King Zadar’s army". 

Dug is a well-meaning "Warrior" - from the North, who's seen his fair share of bloodshed and violence. While not a particularly brave man, Dug's survived countless wars and lived to be an old man. ( "You can either be brave or old. Not both.") Now on the wrong side of Zadar's army - fleeing from a rout, Doug meets up this precocious girl Spring who has a way with words, asks too many questions and is generally pretty resourceful enough to get them out of scraps. 

On the other side of the fence, Lowa Flynn - one of the most celebrated Elites within Zadar's camp, experiences treachery firsthand as the night of drunken celebration, she watches her sisters get chopped down in cold blood. She escapes and meets up with the duo of Dug and Spring. From there on - Lowa's single-minded focus is to avenge her sisters and kill Zadar - while all Dug wants to do is retire by the beach and catch fish - Spring is happy to be around Dug. But with Zadar's hounds sniffing on their heels, there is never a dull moment. The threesome hatch a plot together to kill Zadar.

A larger plot that wheels outside this drama is the advancing army of Romans hell bent on conquering the Isles of Brits. Ragnall, a young man just having completed his studies of "magic" on his way home -finds his entire tribe wiped out by Zadar and his beloved kidnapped. He too thus has a score to settle against the evil and all-powerful King and he is aided by his master Drustan.

It sounds like a simple enough plot-line but there is so much going on - with multiple point of views across 3-4 main protagonists that one or the other storyline will envelope you as you read along. And the dry humor lights up the pages like no other.

Of course - the most interesting one, for me was the strange but winsome friendship between the world-weary warrior Dug and the inquisitive and nosey-parker kid, Spring. Her questions baffle the warrior and it's sheer fun to listen to them banter along. The analogies are completely out of this world. And Dug with his self-deprecating gallows humor is a hoot. But Spring is no "spring chicken" as you would slowly come to know when her secrets are revealed later on.

Lowa is a remarkable protagonist - a warrior bred for battle, the treachery at the hands of her King snaps her back to the sad reality of her situation. Of the grim state of affairs where the tyrant Zadar in the name of unifying britain is actually blowing through decimating tribes - leaving poverty, sickness and misery in his wake. Lowa's repentance and her acts of valor mark her out to be central character in the whole series trilogy and am sure Angus has big plans for this "xena warrior-princess." You know for a while, she reminded me of Monza Murcatto from Best Served Cold but hey, this one's a lot more likable and human. 

What is most compelling is the historical world that Angus fleshes out.  Of the life and times of tribes of South Britain in 61 BC of which not much is known or documented - Angus effortlessly brings to life the details. The livelihood, the food, their vocation, the battle strategies - and all this in a pretty engaging manner as the plot whizzes along. Magic, as practiced by Druids starts off as petty nonsense about reading the future in the entrails of animals but builds up to be a pretty interesting and critical component of the narrative. The aura of mysticism is retained - with the nature of magic unexplained. For as Angus claims, if Jesus could make wine out of water and bread a few decades later, it is possible others knew just a little bit. 

Also in play are tons of interesting thoughts on religion, philosophy, culture and notions of power - all wrought about in Angus' own original style. Initially the conversation seemed a bit forced in all the mannerisms of a modern-day dialog , albeit filled up with interesting expletives ("badger's bollocks" - Spring's temper tantrums are an absolute delight to read!) but Angus soon owns the same in a smooth manner integrating this with his pre-christ era settings. 

It's been touted to be "Game of Thrones as brought to screen by HBO" - as gritty and splashed with gore. True, it stretches the bar for the level of violence and bloodshed - and the wall-to-wall action is pretty fantastic throughout the book - but I would see this more as a necessity for the life and times chronicled. Hell, I could have done without some graphic torture sequences and the casual violence meted out but all part of the parcel, Age of Iron packs quite a punch. 

If you like your fantasy action-packed, drenched in gore, dressed up with some black gallows humor - and revealing quite a bit about an age we know nothing about, then Age of Iron is right up your alley. Angus Watson brings us a historical epic, the first in a political sword-and-sorcery series that is sheer fun, full of pulse-pounding action and filled with some unforgettable characters. I will be clued in on this series for sure!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer: Delightfully original and exciting debut

Whitefire Crossing, the first book in the Shattered Sigil is Courtney Schaffer’s debut that came way back in 2011. I’ve had my eyes on this one since then. And yet I never got around to reading this book. I had heard all good things about Courtney’s terrific debut – combining her love for mountaineering with the undying passion for anything fantasy. So I’m really glad I finally read this one. This book also happens to be my first ever audio-book that I finished listening to. So hey, claps go!

A terrific debut by all rights – a wild thrilling adventure set atop treacherous mountain passes laced with a delightfully detailed magic system along with an unforgettable and charming duo of protagonists – Whitefire Crossing is a refreshingly original take on epic fantasy – with an entirely new setting for the story (well most of it anyways)  to unfold - The wild untamed mountains called Whitefire where the winds can tip you over and the slightest whistle can bring down avalanches. Courtney brings to fore her fierce love and passion for mountain-climbing – the techniques, the tools and the slangs – are aplenty in the beginning but it never gets tiresome. In fact, it’s a bundle of sheer fun. As we prepare for the ride into the mountains along with our two chief protagonists. 

First one is Dev – a seasoned mountain-climber hardly out of his teens, acting as a guide for the merchant caravans making their long way across the mountain-pass. Dev is also a smuggler on the sides – and for the right price, will smuggle anything across the borders of Ninavel to other outlying states. Including “human” cargo. Having recently been cheated out of his life-saving by his partner, for Dev – this mission is a make or break. And the money is tempting. But he – for all of the gruff exterior of a rough and tough “street-sider” – is a man( or boy!) given easily to softer emotions. And he actually needs the money to extricate a girl from a street-side gang-lord’s clutches.
Our second main protagonist Kiran is a “high-sider”- in fact, a young mage fleeing the iron-clutches of his master, Ruslan. Kiran’s got his own share of troubles – from what we gather about Ruslan, he is a mean wicked mage who revels in his show of power and doesn’t shy away from violence – and has plans of enslaving Kiran’s will.

Dev takes on Kiran – making him pose as an climber apprentice for this out-riding expedition and thus, the initial half of the book is set up for some exciting mountaineering action on treacherous passes. Courtney cleverly builds up her narrative – doling out hints about the conflict through references to both Kiran and Dev’s past and builds up the world.  A harsh unforgiving land – with snow avalanches, beasts and slippery routes – Whitefire mountains come to life in Courtney’s elegant prose and her first-hand experience in rock climbing shines through. Infusing Dev and the settings with a vigour and charm unmatched by anything else. I was sucked into the fast-paced story despite myself – and before long, I was wholly invested in this wild adventurous ride through the snow-laden mountainside, holding my breath as Kiran and Dev try and dodge out of Ruslan’s grips.

The second half of the book, however was much slower. The settings are urban and a lot grimmer with the introduction of a second villain into the proceedings. And the tone is decidedly a slower one but a lot more forbidding in the sense that Courtney really goes into flexing her magical systems and this really builds up that sense of tension. While it certainly lacked the wild heady sense of adventure set in lush mountains, the proceedings were sufficiently grim and intriguing enough to roll the plot forwards. Courtney sets up things nicely for further instalments with the conclusion to book one and I for one will be diving headlong into “The Tainted City”.

I loved both Dev and Kiran – but clearly Courtney sets up Dev to be the more flamboyant of the two – the daring thief with a gold of heart – But she certainly does enough to assure us readers that Dev is a pragmatic man at the end of the day and not a romantic fool. Kiran, however is the perfect candidate for the romantic notions of bravery and heroism. A mage – who refuses to indulge in all the “evil” things that Mages usually perpetrate on ordinary citizens, Kiran is fleeing his destiny. And has a grudge or a score to settle ag ainst his mentor and now captor, Ruslan. And is still coming to terms with understanding his magic.

Two male POVs too strong for you? Fear not, because for Courtney brings in Cara – a headstrong, independent female character, an outrider and climber by profession to counter the two male protagonists. A strong-willed character, Cara comes across as an honest girl who is not afraid of speaking her heart out I would love to see more of Cara. Also there are frequent references to Dev’s partner, Jylla – whom too I hope to see in the further instalments of the Shattered Sigil series.

There is Magic in the book. A lot actually. And trust me, it is actually pretty delightful. But getting into the twisted details of this can get a little confusing. So I would let you readers sink into it yourself but I cannot help but talk about the concept of “Tainted” – where kids born with magical talents – like say, Climbing or Flying without help – actually grow out of their “Taint” once they hit puberty. An event called “Change”. Fascinating really.

So in short, Whitefire Crossing is a very enjoyable fantasy fare – starting out as a heady adventurous ride atop mountain passes soon blossoming out into a grim tale of backstabbing, intrigue and a lot of magic. It’s a debut that signals of great things to come and I expect Courtney to fully hit her strides running with the second tale in this series. Which I am shortly getting around to. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff Vandermeer is a name that has been on my reading horizon for a long time now. Funnily enough, his name surfaced when I was doing research around writing workshops and found that Jeff and Ann, the writer-duo conduct a fantastic writing workshop retreat every year. And then of course, his name frequently pops up related to terms like the “New Weird” – a reawakening of the Lovecraftian horror themes with post-modern sensibilities.  A new age Legend.

Annihilation, however, was the full frontal page news for me. Hitting me squarely between my eyes with the force of a lightning bolt. It was the real deal indeed and I think I am sufficiently wowed to follow Jeff’s writing career to the very end of the world. (Or whatever weird ends he takes me to as a reader!)

Annihilation probably heralds Jeff reaching out to more mainstream audiences – with this cleverly marketed trilogy called Southern Reach being published one after the other – starting from Feb through September this year – hitting us in quick succession – that gives a quirky creepy twist to environmental decline issues, emphasizing that weakening bond between man and nature. All wrought about in traditional Vandermeer-style creepy horror and claustrophobic prose.

So Annihilation is narrated as the research and survey notes of a biologist (there are no names in the book. Characters are purely referred to by their profession – Jeff probably aims to keep the notes impersonal and focus on the horror that unfurls as we dig deeper and as the narrator claims, “A name was a dangerous luxury here. Sacrifices didn’t need names,”.) – Part of a four-member expedition team into this strange and mysterious area by the coastline – known simply as Area X. This stretch of strangely alluring and pristine landscape has been the focus of investigations by this semi-military agency called Southern Reach since the “Event” happened some thirty years back and now this is the twelfth expedition into Area X. The members of all the previous expeditions have met with similar ends – dead, gone missing or memory wiped clean and succumbed to cancer.

As we follow the narrator, along with an anthropologist, surveyor and psychologist (All females by the way.  Another strong statement this!) entering the Area X – we are struck speechless by the beautifully atmospheric ecological paradise that this place turns out to be. Brought alive by Vandermeer’s stark hard hitting prose invoking a deep-seated sense of unease among us as we explore further. The horror unimagined that lurks just beyond the reeds near the water bodies, the human-eyed dolphins tracing twins furrows in the marshy ecosystems, the abandoned creepy lighthouse that stores its own set of macabre blood-soaked tales or the living "breathing" tunnel or “tower” that is set straight in the ground with “white shiny” steps leading down into oblivion and darkness. These are not just the only things that will make you go gob-smack with paralyzing fear – it’s the tense memories of the biologist combined with the mysterious happenings within Area X that really brings on that delicious dread and claustrophobic feeling of impending doom.  

As the team goes deeper into the “tower” – following that spiral stone staircase, they discover “written” words on the walls that reads like sermons but no one's ever heard  them before. Glowing with some kind of fungi on top of it. It makes no sense and this quickly sets up the tone for an intriguing mystery. It deepens as the first night goes by and we discover that the tower spells the doom for the expedition team members. One after the other. Accidents happen. The fear deepens, Revelations that are startling and disturbing by parts follow. The flashes of the biologist’ life away from the expedition – her past actually forms a powerful subtext to this strange drama being played out in this weird ecosystem. As a first person narrator, the biologist is not necessarily the most cheerful endearing characters. And yet in Jeff’s efficient hands, she turns out to be an engaging narrator who reels us into her macabre single-minded purpose to get to the bottom of the tower and find out the secret behind those glowing fungi-laden words on the wall.

By the end of the book, I had no answers to all the million questions popping through my head like flashbulbs exploding.  Who the hell are these guys from Southern Reach? Where is Area X? Who is the Crawler? What is that leviathian monster with its weird cry lurking among the reeds? Why are the previous expedition members coming back as zombies?

And yet I felt like I had lived through an awe-inspiring experience worth remembering every detail of. Not a passage is wasted. The pace is electrifying and you will shiver as the narrative reaches a feverish pitch by the climax within the shadowy dark depths of the “tower”.  Jeff Vandermeer is past master at creating that weird smorgasbord – an expert fear-monger but living inside the single-minded biologist’ mind was like having stepped into some pool of liquid gold and then stepped back – without a trace of the molten metal on you and yet you feel all slimy, icky and disgusted.

It’s probably Jeff’s most accessible piece of fiction but one that leaves you burning with questions and reaching for the next two books in the series with trembling heavy fingers. Which by the way – Hooray – are OUT !!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir: Robinson Crusoe stranded on Mars.

The Martian by Andy Weir - his first ever novel, earlier self-published then picked up by Crown to be released early 2014 has become a runaway success story.

I actually would like to thank Crown for bringing back the focus to this lighthearted sci-fi novel about the compelling story of survival of this astronaut stuck on the surface of Mars for close to eighteen months. I would have entirely missed this gem had it not been for the intelligent marketing behind this title.

It's a great book. and am sure it would have done well by itself but the backing of a traditional biggie ensured that it reaches a wider audience. Like me (smug grin!)

Anyways - Andy delivers a compulsively readable account of Mark Watney - a modern day Robinson Crusoe - stranded on the planet of Mars when his mission went horribly wrong - and while rest of the crew manage to escape and get back onto the spaceship "Hermes" - Mark is left for dead.

He wakes up alone and finds that he is "fucked". It's a terrifying situation to be trapped in - with a prefab hub, 2 Mars Rovers and a small sack of potatoes to survive with. However, this Crusoe is armed with a razor-sharp engineering mind, a never-say-die attitude and oodles of sarcastic humor to lighten the situation. It works and how. The gripping narrative - in spite of being 90% dry log accounts from Mark - does the job of keeping you glued through and through to the book.

I personally thought that this was more a "science" book that science-fiction - where Andy goes into excruciating details of how to create water from oxygen - reclaimed from the carbon-dioxide we breath out - and hydrogen - to be cracked out from the hydrozine or rocket fuel Or where he does the math of how much food and liters of water should he be saving up for - if he has to wait for four years till the next Mars mission is supposed to arrive back on the planet. Initially the arithmetic is fascinating but it does become a chore as we rapidly progress through the book.

Mark is clearly one of the most resourceful characters I've read about - an engineer and a botanist, bits of software programmer, handyman, electrician - all rolled into one. And the ingenious manner in which he scrapes through and survives on Mars is commendable. Also impressive was the scope and number of dire situations that Andy makes his lead character fall into. The POV switches from the first-point log accounts - punctuated by Mark's infallible sense of humor about the 70's TV, disco music or his own sense of hygiene - to third-person view of the heightened sense of tension and drama that happens in the NASA command-center once they find out through satellite images that Mark is alive. I thought it was a clever ploy - juxtaposing these two POVs to notch up the drama a little bit.

While clearly Mark is the "Martian" and the center of all happenings in the book- Andy cleverly brings up a few other important characters into the fray including a few strong female characters. All well rounded and three dimensional.

The only flaw - would be the narrative does get tiresome after a bit. The solidly researched findings that Mark keeps heaping on us readers gets a bit boring frankly. And while an extremely competent man, Mark seems to have kept his feelings completely under wraps. A man stranded on Mars with little chance of survival - who doesn't reflect on a life well spent or not well spent? An emotionally cold man. A tad difficult to believe.

But overall, a fun "science" book featuring a castaway in Mars with enough chutzpah to make us like him and root for his survival, funny thrilling and gripping in equal measures - Andy Weir's debut scores. Celebrating the triumph of the human ingenuity and the will to thrive.