Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The second novella from that I'm reading and hot damn, is it good! Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a heart-wrenching densely layered beautiful novella - in the style of sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel but one that remains truly literary in its execution. Kai Ashante should be writing a full fledged novel now and I will be jumping on board for sure.

At a little over two hundred pages, Kai builds a world that is deep and profoundly interesting in its construct. Is this Earth a few hundred years in the future or a world altogether new? I couldn't figure. Angels and Demi Gods have left for their heavenly abodes. Demane and Isa, the two central characters of the book are the only ones left, behind great grand-children to the older gods, trying to learn the ways of normal human civilizations, bickering and learning to negotiate the worth of yellow colored metal coins and such useless trivial pursuits. Eking out life as a mercenary band of soldiers protecting rich merchants caravans. Now the premise of the story is simple enough - a band of mercenaries as caravan-guards have to see the group through this densely forested wildlands called Wildeeps - believed to be cursed and under the threat of a predatory monster that looks like a mutant sabre-toothed tiger with magical abilities. The group is led by this mysteriously enchanting Captain Isa - and Demane, called a sorcerer by his brothers, is the healer and the second-in-command in that group. The novel (-lette?) follows the adventures of this group as they head towards this cursed Wildeeps in the meanwhile establishing and exploring the relationships between the various brothers of that caravan-guard.

Now Demane is a pretty solidly fleshed character - his emotional and turbulent tryst with the Captain whom he is madly in love with, his backstory being fleshed out in flashbacks hitting us in perfect sequence and his manner of trying to fit in with the human soldiers in the camp. Truly the star of the narrative, we get to know what shapes and drives Demane's actions and its consequences throughout the story. Now Captain, on the other hand, is still a mystery. We know he is a demigod as well but we are never privy to his thoughts, So we really never figure out what drives this enigmatic leader of men and gods - and in that open ended climax, Kai Ashante drives the spear-point right through our thumping hearts as he leaves us to figure out what really happened.

As far as the narrative goes, it is lyrical and beautiful - but sometimes it does get pretty dense and obfuscatory. Hence while the book is short in scope, it takes a lot of hard reading. Kai mixes in African-american lingo in the middle of it - meshing up a classical beautiful sentence with the harsh hip-hop language that should be jarring but some how comes across as though it belongs in this strange fascinating world. It's a book I am in awe of. I don't claim to have understood all of it but nevertheless, I am in awe of it. ( especially those fat foot-notes at the end of the chapters that gives us glimpses of the world and leave us all the more crazed and confused!)

As we are caught up in the minutiae of the hunt, a bloody filthy adventure that rips and roars across the pages, thrashing through the dense undergrowth of the wildeeps, our hearts pounding with the excitement and fear for the lives our heroes, Kai Ashante has achieved in this tiny space a complex and wonderfully written piece of literature that will force us to think. About relationships, of the age old man versus wild paradigm explored anew and the sheer delight of his prose and the fantastical weirdness presented by its narrative. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

City of Light by Keri Arthur

City of Light is the first 2016 title that I'm reading this year. And what a rollicking start to this year's titles! This is the first Keri Arthur title that I'm reading as well - and I'm pretty impressed.

City of Light marks the start to a new post-apocalyptic series set in an interesting world that's survived a deadly 'race' war - humans pitted against 'shifters'. A gritty dark world where darkness  holds more dangers than you can count. And vampires may the least of your troubles. As the bombing during the race-war created holes in our world - that let the "others" in. And so humans and shifters now live under an uneasy truce in artificially lit up cities scrounging out a miserable existence.

The world building hits you from the start - refreshingly original and very atmospheric. Keri does a great job of transporting us right into the thick of this layered world - through the eyes of our central protagonist, Tig. Now Tig is an interesting choice for a central character - she is neither human or shifter. She's a humanoid, the result of experiments during the war, a supersoldier type known as 'dechet' and her particular skill is luring people. A spy? Her body type is a mix of several DNA's - human, shifter, vampire - you name it.

The story picks up pace from the first chapter itself where Tig rescues a child stuck out near her living quarters ( an abandoned military lab with several levels - far way from the lit up Central city where the majority of the population lives) - from the attack of a horde of vampires.  By this act, though - Tig's tranquil existence unknown to the rest of the world is blown apart. She is unwittingly pulled into a fight - against a new conspiracy threatening the world. Old friendships are renewed while new enemies pop up by the dozen. uneasy alliances, trust is a forgotten word and the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Tig's character is easy to like - in some ways more human than human, her friendship with the 'ghosts' in the lab an endearing thing that struck me pretty early. The raw deal that dechets have been dealt out by both humans and shifters is a recurring theme throughout the story - the war that ended more than a hundred years ago popping up every now and then. Keri beautifully demonstrates how the world today is shaped by the war and is still under the grips of distrust and suspicion sowed more than a hundred years ago. Her world building is masterfully done - it feels real and lived-in - a gritty dark place where life by no means is pretty. This book is only the opener to this wonderful series that seems to seamlessly mesh together futuristic sci-fi elements with magic - done in an effortless manner. The pacing is right-on - and the mysteries surrounding the kidnappings only seemed to deepen as we move along the story. There are several other characters - Nuri, the powerful witch lady who seems to be leading a rebel group, Jonas - the 'hot' shifter whom Tig saves from the vampire attack and to whom she is undeniably attracted to, Sal - her oldest friend from the war-days. All of them nicely fleshed out yes, but I personally would have liked to see perhaps a few more POVs. Perhaps Cat and Bear could have had a voice ?

All things done, I felt this is a compelling fascinating opener to a great series. Keri gives a strong heroine who's going through an emotional tsunami because of the choices she's made and some she has to take on about the future of this world - welding together fantasy and sci-fi in a beautifully believable manner, pacing out an intriguing story filled with non-stop action and some sizzling sex-on-the-side romantic interludes. Keri is an author I am going to watch out for - and the Outcast is a series I am going to follow up with. Good start to 2016, aye? 

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library is the dazzling debut from Genevieve Cogman that came out in 2015 - with the second part of this rollicking series, Masked City having just hit the stores last Dec.

As usual, I am late to this party but I am so glad I am on-board. The book has one of the most interesting premises I've ever read and is soaked in nostalgia reminiscent of a good old fantasy tale done just right. Magic, steampunk, detective-story - all rolled in one filled with danger lurking around every other page leading to non-stop adventures. this one reads like pure unadulterated fun.

So as the name suggests, the book introduces readers to the Library - an institute that collects interesting fiction from different alternate versions of the world and is tasked with preserving the order in such worlds by balancing out 'chaos' ( A sort of unregulated magic that runs riot and destroys worlds). We join Irene, a junior librarian on the way back from a regular mission ( one that involves being chased by Hellhounds and attacked by gargoyles - and we are immediately stoked up because if a mundane mission that introduces us to the protagonist involves such levels of excitement, then the 'special' one she gets sent out for the bulk of the book was going to be scintillating! And hell yes, we are not disappointed!)

So Irene gets sent to an alternate London along with a new apprentice Kai to retrieve the fairy tale, Brothers Grimm Story. So its' still nineteenth century and it is teeming with chaos - metallic monsters chewing up the roads and randomly out to kill people, mobs up in arms against each other, faes and vampires part of the high society but each with their own vested interests and the book, missing - having been filched from a murder scene by a 'cat' burglar. The complications nest down together and forms a vicious pit that drags Irene right in. And on top of that, the 'book' has attracted the attention of the only Librarian to have turned a traitor against the cause of the Library. A legendary figure believed to have lived for centuries and who has no remorse against 'killing' other librarians.

It's a heady concoction of fun and adventure dealt in magically-charged manner. Language that structures reality? Knock me down with a feather! Brilliant. Genevieve keeps things on the boil all the way to a stunning climax, throwing in vividly imagined dangers round the dark corners.

Irene is a wonderful heroine, level-headed, lightning fast mental reflexes and can hold her own against thieves and thugs. So repelling cyborg alligators, almost drowning in the Thames, getting poisoned by curare, getting the skin stripped off her hand and being chased by werewolves and giant robots - all in a day's work for our kick-ass junior librarian. She is the perfect foil for us to understand the workings of the Library and the forces against it - especially bringing in a new apprentice who again gives us reader ample opportunities to learn up more about the mysterious institution. Kai is a mystery and I would have loved to see more of him - but with a lot of other characters vying for the attention, I thought his character suffered a bit. Charming and courteous, I wanted to see if the sparks between him and his senior would ignite. But Genevieve plays her cards very subtly - introducing another possible romantic sub plot with Vale, a detective clearly styled on her favorite character, Holmes. A lovable character bustling with energy and action - and who teams up with Irene and Kai on their mission. A word about Bradamant, the other librarian in the picture - For some reason, I was undecided whether I should be hating her guts and guile or be in awe of her resourcefulness and her cunning. Anyways, I am hoping to run in to her more often though.

There are still mysteries that abound within the hidden corridors of the Library and it's mysterious ways of working -  Genevieve plants enough seeds in our minds to confuse us and have us hanging on for the rest of the adventures! - and the darkness and chaos that threatens multiple layers of alternate worlds all around the Library is still at large. So be sure to see Irene in action again!

Magical and fantastical, The Invisible Library is a book that reads like a runaway freight train with a vividly imagined plot, plucky hero(es) and heroines, a larger-than-life villain, detailed with a nicely wrought out magical system all circling around the Invisible Library that itself has secrets wheeling within secrets in dark hallways seldom explored. Come hither and step into the hallowed hallways for a thrill-ride like never before. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens!! And HOW.

So this was a movie that we have all been waiting for – for more than a year now with bated breath, having trimmed down those expectations that refuse to lie still and keep poking you, saying “hey do you think Lucas still has it? Oh wait, this time it’s his protégé, JJ Abrams behind the wheel. So can he recreate the magic?”

If you have been on that boat – rocking yourself to sleep, not able to answer that question peacefully, then hey! its finally here. Part VII of the world’s biggest movie franchise. And did it knock the socks off of our audience? Well, the jury is divided on that.

I caught The Force Awakens in the first week of January – the Sunday before the world went back to work after an extensive festive holiday season. And simple answer to that question I posed above: I LOVED it.

We got new faces to root for, our older favorite characters are back in the story arc, there’s a new evil at large, prophecies and intriguing back stories to be revealed – All in all, it’s a rousing installment that certainly restores our hope in the series and we hope the trilogy continues to kick ass and deliver! [Notice that ‘hope’? The critics pan it saying why don’t we rename it to New Hope – II as the plot seems to be a derivative of the original trilogy part-I? But bah! These are the skeptics who would never shed their thick skins and look for something fresh.]

Writer-Director JJ Abrams plays it relatively safe – sticking to the original trilogy form – in this monumental new undertaking to “restore” the faith of the audience in the Hollywood blockbuster paradigm. Force Awakens probably will go on to break some records in the holiday season but what it unconditionally does is – bring back that warm nostalgia, comic sensibilities and shakes off that uncharacteristic torpor that seized episode I and II. What was very different in the feel – was that the movie was light and well-paced – shot with wisecracks and earnest humor by a lot many characters. And the fresh faced new “heroes” bode well for the future of this enterprise.

Leading from the front, is Daisey Riley – who plays “Rey” the scavenger girl with a mysterious past who has the Force very strong inside her. Ably supporting her is John Boyega, who essays the role of the earnest and frantic do-gooder stormtrooper soldier turned rebel and good Samaritan, Finn. They share an easy camaraderie that is hard to miss onscreen and this really lights up the movie. Oscar Isaac – who plays the role of the “best” pilot in the galaxy leading the rebel wing – has his moments in his brief outing that really endeared him to the audience. We hope to see more of him as well.
Moving on to the one of the biggest comebacks – Adding the sparkling star-value to Episode VII is Harrison Ford. When Han Solo (Reprise roles! Hello there Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca) mutters, “It’s all true – the force, the Jedi, all of it”, he might have been addressing the jaded skeptics sitting in the audience. My heart leapt at it – and I was up clapping for Han Solo as he again teams up with these newcomer kids to take the fight back to the dark side. Some may argue – that return of Harrison Ford was perhaps the best thing about the movie. Perhaps. But personally for me, Daisey Riley is the find of the enterprise. It’s a break out role for the young actress and she shoulders the responsibility pretty well. She kicks ass, she’s great with her onscreen chemistry with John Boyega’s character and there’s an air of mystery around her past that will slowly be peeled back in the coming episodes where I think she will play a greater role.

The camera zooms in on ravaged desert landscapes of Jakku the planet where the initial half of the movie is centered around and then moving onto the verdant greens of Yavin that feels textured and exotic. This is nicely complimented by John Williams’ music that lends life to the long arduous journeys from the cast.

So to that long pending question, is it still worth it? My answer is a resounding yes. In spite of the fact that this one seemed like a homage to the original trilogy full of Easter eggs, casual references to events and people [ They even got Carrie Fischer – to play Princess…oh beg your pardon…General Leia and Mark Hamill to reprise you-know-who!] I feel it’s a great start to something new. A movie firing on all cylinders, brimming with nostalgia and homage yes – but a return to form for Star Wars, which I think should sufficiently endear itself to the legion of fans around. JJ Abrams is careful not to ruffle any more feathers and while there is nothing uttery inventive in this new outing, we love the fact that he has not reimagined and repackaged the familiar landscape. A winning start to the new trilogy!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Best of 2015 @ Smorgasbord Fantasia

It’s been a hectic year for me – what with my debut, Faith of the Nine hitting the markets in November – since October my reading has really hit a slump. For the first time ever, since I started setting a goal for myself, I didn’t hit my strides and missed the goal this year.
Wanted to finish at least 70 books this year – I knew it was a stretch ( compared to last year’s 55 – where I actually surpassed it and hit 65!) but I was pretty confident, being ahead of my goals by the mid-year. Sadly for me, the last three months were really pretty off – derailed with all marketing and post-publication activities for my book and as of date, the tally read a total of 60 books.  Missed by 10. Still a round figure of 60 ain’t bad huh?

Well, the good news is that I did read a lot of good ones from which I am going to select my best-reads. No real number, just the ones I REALLY liked in 2015. In no particular order:

Gemini Cell by Myke Cole: Myke Cole continues to blaze his path through this new sub-genre of “Military fantasy – and Gemini Cell is definitely his best effort till date. This time, it’s far more brutal and pacier, bone-crunching action, some rich human drama – star crossed lovers! And lots of mayhem and magic. Trust me, you’re going to love Jim Schweitzer. Can’t wait for Javelin Rain. Zombie Military Fantasy anyone?

Half a War by Joe Abercrombie. I will be frank with you guys. My list is not complete without this giant on it. And this year – he had two books come out back to back completing the YA series, the Shattered Seas – a stunning conclusion in Half a War reuniting us with Father Yarvi and his motley crew. I won’t go to say this is his best yet ( I actually read Red Country this year but it technically came out earlier!) but hey, its Abercrombie back at the top of his game. You don’t want to miss this series.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R Fletcher Few books this year left such an indelible impression on me like Michael Fletcher’s grimmer than grimdark effort that featured mad psychosomatic characters who are so original that they really shone for me. It’s a book that dared to be different. And really will tear through your guards. You’re forewarned.

The Builders by Daniel Polansky He’s the latest ambassador of grim-dark that really topped the game for me with this short novella that featured anthropomorphic animals in a bleak western setting – out for revenge. It’s a rip-roaring fur-ball of a story. One of the best this year, from new publishing calendar focused on shorter stories.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (Song of the shattered sands, #1) is a strong start to possibly one of the game changers in this genre. Set in a pseudo-arabic setting giving us one of the most remarkable heroines in Fantasy, Bradley Beaulieu continues to throw the genre wide open with this immersive and richly detailed desert world fantasy.

Golden Son ( Red Rising # 2) Probably stratospheric in terms of the expectations, Pierce Brown really knows how to spin a story and keep you hanging on. The revolution on Mars is picking up frenetic pace. We don’t know whether Darrow’s alive. The third book comes out early this year. Easily one of the best books I read in 2015.

Honorable mentions for 2015 includes Alice by Christina Henry – a twisted harrowing tale down the rabbit-hole and The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley brings things in the chronicles of the unhewn throne to an interesting boil.

So that rounds up my best reads the last year – look forward to another glorious year for speculative fiction, adding more to that smorgasbord of fantasia. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Drake by Peter Mclean

Angry Robot holds the open door submission almost every year towards the fag end. And from the slush pile, some genuine gems emerge – who go onto acclaimed fame. Having roughed out in the open and then made it through sheer luck, oodles of talent topped off by unending hard work. Wesley Chu comes to mind. The Tao series is an underappreciated gem of a series that should win some awards. Time Salvager, his latest is a time-travel science fiction thriller that is doing pretty well now.

So Peter Mclean is another such find. Drake is a fiendishly explosive hell-ride with tricky demons, fallen angels, the Devil Himself for company set in the shadowy dark lanes of a London we don’t know at all. The first book in a series (Burned Man, Book One) is an unapologetic mashup of urban fantasy and gritty noire set in a dark grimy London featuring Drake as a washed-out fully functional alcoholic who uses an ancient demon in the form of a wooden relic as a medium to summon spirits from the otherworld to perform “hits” for his clients. Boiling it right down to the gristle. Don is a hitman who uses demons to kill for his clients and makes money to make ends meet.

Don Drake, the eponymous hero is obviously not a pleasant man to hang around with. He’s got vices, hard to cure. A love for the bottle and an itch to gamble that tends to get too costly for his own good. He owes the biggest badass gangsters debts – that needs to be repaid in blood. And to wash this off, Don unwittingly commits a crime – killing folks who were in the protection of the Greek Furies. Things turn pretty complicated as Don, a broken soul who cannot keep a decent girlfriend for long – becomes the target of two lovely women. Who soon turn things ugly for him. And in the literal true sense of that word. His world is flung upside down as he realizes he has upset the balance of nature and rained down the wrath of spirits on himself that he isn’t really trained to combat. But falling back on an ancient arch demon-spirit trapped inside a wooden relic known only as the Burned Man, Don has more than just the odd trick up his sleeve.

Peter’s writing is refreshing as it slams you squarely between your eyes without any preamble. I went in without any expectation and then I just couldn't stop myself as I went with the flow. Don’s character is flawed to a fault and inspite of his drunken broken behaviour, there is something redeemable about him that endears him to us readers. The female characters, Trixie and Ally are pretty complex creatures with unplumbed depths that Don slowly falls into. There is humor, the black kinds that is interspersed with the darkish atmosphere to the book that never truly lifts off. The shadowy London with hole-in-the-wall drinking establishments, greasy restaurants and foggy nights rife with creatures that go bump in the dark is pretty nicely fleshed out. Peter never really takes the foot off the pedal and the pacing is headlong, rushed up and brutal.

I really liked this dark debut from this highly talented find from the stables of Angry Robot. Peter McLean makes an emphatic statement of things to come in the future with this first instalment of the Burned Man series. And I cannot wait to see where he drives this one to, setting things up nicely for the next books in the series.