Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold is the first in a series about Penric and the demon, Desdemona. The novella is short (as befits a novella), coming in at 109 pages, making it a fairly quick read with a fairly linear storyline. It’s somewhat of a classic fantasy read, set in a world and with many characters whom we only get to know cursorily. Still, the magic, the setting, and the demons are all interesting in their own way; I want to continue with the series, in other words.

At the onset, we find Penric on his way to his wedding. As a minor noble, Penric finds himself matched with a better lady than he’d hoped, and he’s looking forward to the union. On the way, however, he stops to come to the aid of a fallen elderly woman, not knowing that she is in actuality a powerful sorceress and a host to a likewise powerful demon. As one might imagine, Penric’s life becomes entangled with that of the demon in such a way that the two become inseparable.

Penric is a likeable enough fellow. He’s not exactly the most heroic character, but he also doesn’t shy away from doing the right thing. Desdemona is a bit of a mystery and an intriguing one at that. She’s very old, very powerful, and very motherly when it comes to Penric. Or maybe she’s more like an older sister. Regardless, she becomes a tutor of sorts to him, imbuing him with her experience and knowledge, both of which come in handy when Penric needs to get himself out of a jam.

I’m giving Penric’s Demon three rockets because it’s a fun, fast, enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward to reading on in the series.

Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues by J.M. Martin (editor)

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Blackguards by J.M. Martin (editor) is a collection of short works by a plethora of notable authors. As the title of the collection suggests, the stories center around an assortment of rogues, thieves, assassins, and generally unsavory individuals. Some are roguish on the exterior with some shred of decency beneath; others are just bad characters with no hope (or desire) for redemption. The origin of Blackguards can be traced back to Kickstarter, where a successful funding campaign resulted in the gathering of such authors as Cat Rambo, Michael J. Sullivan, Paul S. Kemp, Django Wexler, Joseph R. Lallo, Shawn Speakman, and many others.

“I’ve a tale about a prisoner what let a rat eat him bit by bit. He thought the most of him could escape that way, though he never figgered how to get his bones out…” – Seeds by Carol Berg

For all that, Blackguards gets off on a shaky foot. The forward, by notable author Glen Cook, is, to put it lightly, confusing. But, OK, it’s just the forward and not part of the collection itself. The introduction from the editor, J.M. Martin, is a bit more grounded and at least makes sense as he outlines his early fascination with rogues and how that culminated into the present collection. Good. Now I’m ready to jump in and immerse myself in some truly dastardly characters and stories. The first tale, Mainon by Jean Rabe, left me a little unfulfilled, especially as the reading experience came to a screeching start as I encountered this gem:

the waiter brought desert

Desert? Really? How about “the waiter brought dessert.” Talk about killing the reading experience. But, moving on, the story itself never grabbed me and I found the ending unfulfilling. No matter. It’s only one story and there were many more to explore. Besides, in any collection like this there are bound to be some gems and some duds.

The next story, Irindai by Bradley P. Beaulieu, is beautifully written and actually got off to a great start. But, again, it seemed to fizzle at about at its midway point. Needless to say, two stories in with an egregious error to boot, and I was not feeling good about this book.

Fortunately Cat Rambo’s The Subtler Art got my reading experience back on track. From that point onward I liked almost every story. Notable amongst those, I’d list A Better Man by Paul S. Kemp, which features Kemp’s sword and sorcery duo Egil and Nix; The First Kill by Django Wexler; Better To Live Than To Die by John Gwynne; The Secret by Mark Lawrence; and many others. As noted above, in any collection like these you’re going to have a mixed bag. That’s not to say any of the stories were just outright horrible. Only that a few didn’t appeal to me. They may very well resonate with you, or you may find ones I really enjoyed to lack anything notable for you.

In all, though, Blackguards is a wonderful collection of roguish tales. It’s a solid four rockets, or would have been I should say, if not for the numerous typos. I’m fairly forgiving of these kinds of errors. One, two, even three I can tolerate. But Blackguards piled one proofreading error on top of another. In addition to the above mentioned use of ‘desert,’ here’s a few more:

But let Laureen think I’m some was a clumsy, yellow-haired twit.
She wore charms, talismans of made of bone and feathers and other items
trying to sense of the tingle of a ward
Ieve if it had been magical
Her last few moment of consciousness flickered through her

Unfortunately, there are more. In our current publishing arena, where self-published works are skewered over an open flame for such missteps, I cannot in good conscience expect anything less from supposed professionally published works. Blackguards gets 4 rockets, but I’m marking it down 1 rocket due to the extreme number of proofreading errors.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

In The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, humans finally leave Earth to settle the distant stars when a remarkable discovery is made. The Flow, as it’s called, is a phenomenon made up of passageways that enable FTL travel. But the Flow is scarcely understood, and soon Earth is cutoff from the rest of the Flow when it’s entry point mysteriously closes. No matter, though, because the Interdependency, a series of unified human settlements, has done well on its own, establishing artificial worlds all along the Flow’s pathways and a substantial presence on the only habitable planet along the Flow, End (called that because it literally lies at the end of the Flow).

As one might imagine from the book’s title, the empire, in this case the Interdependency, is on the verge of change or, rather, collapse. [Note that none of this is a spoiler since this information is in the book’s description] Not because it’s reached it’s height of decadence or because of imminent invasion, but because the entry and egress points along the Flow are closing, cutting off each symbiotic piece of the Interdependency one by one until each settlement will be entirely on its own. Of those settlements, only End has any hope of surviving because of its natural resources. As readers, we learn of the imminent catastrophe in bits and pieces. Ultimately, the problem becomes one the new emperox of the Interdependency, Cardenia, must solve.

But along the way there are mutinies, business and political backstabbing, and attempts on a certain emperox’s life. If you have an appreciation for Scalzi’s other work you should have no problem settling into the punchy, dialog-heavy writing, which actually does a fairly nice job of keeping the story moving along at a fairly fast-paced clip. Right away, we experience what happens when an entry point into the Flow begins to close. For a ship’s crew marooned outside the Flow, they face a slow death as their stores and power runs out long before they can traverse the potentially hundreds of light years distance to the next closest settlement. Space is truly vast and humans never developed FTL technology.

One word of caution: if you are in any way put off by use of the F-word, then tread carefully into this one. Scalzi uses it like it’s going out of style. One character in particular has few sentences, if any, that do not contain swearing. It fits the character, but even I thought it was a bit much after a few hundred pages of it.

The Collapsing Empire is an exciting read and only the first book in the Interdependency series, so there’s plenty more to come. If you liked Old Man’s War and the other books in that series, I think you’ll enjoy this one as well.

Faithless by Graham Austin-King

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Faithless by Graham Austin-King is one of those books that I didn’t necessarily expect greatness from, but where I was really hoping for an engaging story, some competent writing, and maybe even a handful of moments where I could look back on the reading experience with some fondness. Unfortunately, the author did not deliver on my expectations on enough counts for me to continue reading past about 20%. I do thank the publisher for giving me the opportunity to review Faithless, but a combination of flat writing and flatter characters made for a generally unengaging experience.

The premise wasn’t half bad. There’s a temple with mines underneath. People are called to service, presumably to the temple but, in actuality, to work in the mines. But if one makes their tally so many times in a row, that person has the chance to go before the priests and serve them instead of toiling away in the mines. We are introduced to one such character who was sold into service by his father and another who worked his way out of the mines to serve the priests, but who came back to the mines under mysterious circumstances.

The problem is that neither character is particularly interesting. They’re actually quite ordinary, with no special aptitudes or skills, and nothing about them really grabbed me. Same for the writing. It’s competent enough, but couldn’t make up for the other shortcomings that ultimately led me to put this one down.

I almost feel as if I could give Faithless a higher mark than a single rocket because some people will like it. But I also can’t recommend a book that I couldn’t finish, so one rocket it is.

Artemis by Andy Weir

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Building on the success of The Martian, Artemis by Andy Weir is a book you want to love. You expect science, adventure, gripping moments, and, of course, humor, just like you experienced in The Martian. Artemis does, in fact, deliver on all of those fronts (at least I’ll have to assume it does since I only made it 15% of the way through on my Kindle before I gave up), but in a way that is so ridiculously similar to Weir’s first breakout success that you might wonder if you’re reading the same book at times.

Not that this is a rehash of The Martian. The setting is different—we’re on the Moon this time instead of Mars and our main character isn’t trapped but living inside a dome that is part of a Moon base. The main character is different as well. Different gender, different ethnicity, different background, though her sarcasm and juvenile humor are so nearly identical to that of Watney’s that you have to wonder if Watney had a sex change.

What really killed this book for me was a combination of the unlikeable main character, Weir’s unsophisticated writing style (which actually worked for The Martian because it was Mark Watney telling the story), and the juvenile humor of a character that is, again, so similar to Watney that maybe it is him just in disguise? I’m kidding, of course. Jazz Bashara is most definitely not Mark Watney, though the author clearly lost sight of that fact when he was writing Artemis.

Jazz is a porter, doing odd jobs for what passes for money on the base. She’s offered the job of a lifetime (with pay to match) which I know from reading the book’s description goes bad so that Jazz finds herself mixed up in a plot for control of the very base. Not an entirely bad premise, but not one that piqued my interest enough to put up with the other factors bringing this one down.

I can’t give Artemis more than one rocket. I didn’t finish it and I see no reason for anyone else to even start it. I do thank the publisher for allowing me to read the book in exchange for a fair review. Better luck next time? I hope so, because I really did want this one to work.