Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Book Review: Seeds of Change by John Joseph Adams (editor)

Back in early June, John Joseph Adams sent out a request for advanced readers for his Seeds of Change anthology. Of course, I took him up on it.

Adams is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but he's also been on a tear of late editing anthologies. There's The Living Dead, Wastelands, and, now, Seeds of Change.

While Adams gave plenty of advanced notice of the imminent release of the anthology, I fell behind with some other reading and wasn't able to start it until after it had already been released. Fortunately, Seeds of Change is a fast-paced, easy read (though I have to admit I did not read every story through, see below), and so this review comes only shortly after the official release. You can purchase Seeds of Change in hardcover or Kindle formats.

Now, on to my review…

I'm going to start with an introduction pulled from the Seeds of Change web site to give you a taste of what this anthology is all about:

Imagine the moment when the present ends, and the future begins–when the world we knew is no more and a brave new world is thrust upon us. Gathering stories by nine of today’s most incisive minds, Seeds of Change confronts the pivotal issues facing our society today: racism, global warming, peak oil, technological advancement, and political revolution.

A heady claim, to be sure, but Seeds of Change delivered, for me, seven out of nine times.

That calls for an explanation: There are nine stories in total; two of them didn't do it for me, and I had to stop reading. But of the seven stories I did finish, I found each of them both entertaining and thought-provoking. That's a rare combination, IMO. Often an author will go too far into the literary realm, which is all well and fine when one is looking for that sort of thing. But these days I'll take entertaining over literary nine times out of ten. It was a pleasant surprise that Seeds of Change provided both, and probably why I found it such an easy read.

Of the seven stories I completed, the most entertaining were those by Jay Lake, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and Ted Kosmatka. Tobias Buckell was up there as well, but I found his Pepper story contribution a bit of a letdown. Perhaps I'd gotten too used to the character's zombie butt-kicking ways from Sly Mongoose that to see him thoughtful and almost introspective threw me. On the other hand, this anthology is about change, so seeing things in a different light may be what it's all about.

Seeds of Change scores a ten on quality of writing. Regardless of what I might have thought about a story's theme or characters, the authors each come through with a wholly engaging style. That goes for the two stories I didn't finish as well.

For the record, those two were "A Dance Called Armageddon", by Ken MacLeod, and "Artists Aren't Stupid", by Jeremiah Tolbert. There was nothing inherently wrong with either story. The oration simply wasn't doing it for me. At my age (I'm 38), that's enough for me to give it a pass.

But that fact takes nothing away from the anthology. If you're looking for a healthy dose of thought-provoking literature leavened by a hefty shot of entertainment to put an exclamation on these final summer days, I highly recommend Seeds of Change.

Book Review: The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

The short of Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword: I liked it. Though I have to say I'm split.

But, first, a brief summary:

Lady Katherine Talbert goes to live with her Uncle, the Mad Duke, who has it in for Katherine's mother (the Duke's sister) and vows to leave her alone should she commit her daughter to living with him for six months. In that time, the Mad Duke completely changes her perspective on life and her place in it, having her trained as a swords(wo)man. Once she has mastered the sword, she can no longer go back to the life she would have otherwise led. It's as much a coming-of-age story as it is about the sordid politics the Mad Duke has immersed himself in. In the end, it's up to Katherine, with her Uncle's help, to save the day.

Now, on to my analysis...

On one hand, it's written exceptionally well. The writing flows naturally, the prose are very concise, never once does she launch into pages and pages of backstory or what I term 'excessive exposition', which is when a writer goes overboard dealing with a character's internal emotions or conflict. She keeps the story moving along from page-to-page, never really slowing with the exception of a page here and there where she gets a little too much into the intricacies of the lives of the young female aristocrats and their oh-so-harried social lives. The book was a delight to read, especially from the perspective of trying to learn, learn, learn everything I can so I can hopefully someday find success of my own with my own writing. Chalk this one up as a great learning experience.

On the other hand, there's not enough story there for my tastes. Kushner throws in a few smaller plotlines, one of which ties into Katherine's expertise with the sword, but the main plot didn't give me enough to sink my teeth into. I understand there are two other books which came out before The Privilege of the Sword (Swordspoint, The Fall of The Kings), but neither is necessary to understand this one (I haven't read either). So, what we have is Katherine learning the sword, her using her expertise to avenge a friend's honor, and the Duke playing a sort of chess game against one of his main rivals in the city. I'm afraid even that might be pushing it as the third point only comes into play towards the end.

In summary, The Privilege of the Sword is very well written but just didn't give me enough to truly enjoy it.

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

 

Robin Hobb is one of my favorite writers. I devoured The Farseer Trilogy and tore through The Soldier Son Trilogy.

It was with the same excitement that I dove into Ship of Magic, book one of The Liveship Traders. Unfortunately, this particular journey ended in disappointment.

Hobb's greatest strength is twofold: her characterizations and her world-building. She has a knack for creating believable, likeable, even detestable characters. Also, the settings she creates are top-notch: well thought out, realistic, and most definitely populated by 'believable' characters.

Ship of Magic does not falter in these areas. But ultimately it did fail to present to me a character which I could readily identify with. Therein lies the true strength of The Farseer and Soldier Son trilogies. Both have strong yet flawed and very sympathetic characters. Ship of Magic has Althea, who fits this bill to some extent, but because there are so many other characters and other plotlines, she gets lost amidst the clutter.

Which brings me to my second contention with Ship of Magic: it's just too darn long. Standing in at a hefty 800 pages, this monster of a book is, in my opinion, about 400 pages too long. I've given up such weighty (no pun intended) series as George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for wasting my time with books that go nowhere. While Hobb's pace moves along well enough, I still felt it suffered from bloat.

My last issue with Ship of Magic has to do with the characters, or rather my dislike of most of them. Kyle Haven is an ass. Wintrow is an unlikable wuss. Malta is useless.

Althea, already mentioned, stands out amongst these less than likable personas. Brashen, also, as a well thought out character whom I found myself genuinely rooting for.

At this point, I don't know if I want to invest the same amount of time in books two and three if book one is any indication of things to come. I don't know if either gets any better or worse in terms of page count. Also, as engaging as some (OK, two) of the characters are, the story lags. There's just not enough going on. It's mostly this trader family does this and the other one does that. The great thing about The Farseer Trilogy is that it has all the great characters but also an overlying mystery—what are the Outislanders doing to the people of the Six Duchies to turn them into such monsters and how are they going to stop the invasion? It's a strange happening that kept me reading on and on.

Ship of Magic just didn't have this same attraction.

Book Review: Sly Mongoose by Tobias Buckell

Tobias Buckell posted a request for advanced readers for his upcoming science fiction novel, Sly Mongoose, and, of course, I took him up on it.

This is my first go-around with Buckell’s work, though I’ve had one of his other novels, Crystal Rain, on my radar for a long time. Sly Mongoose is and isn’t a continuation of the story told in Ragamuffin. While there are clear references to the story that unfolded in that previous book, at no time did I feel as if I was missing something by not having read it first. Needless to say, as I found Sly Mongoose to be a very enjoyable read, I intend to go back and read Ragamuffin. Now, on to the review…

Sly Mongoose is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. The .rtf version I previewed came in at 208 pages, so expect about the same in the hard cover or paperback versions. The book is scheduled for release about August.

Buckell wastes no time throwing us into the story: Pepper, our titular character, is free-falling from orbit through Chilo’s atmosphere with only a heatshield protecting him from the 2,000 degree, friction-induced heat. Pepper is no ordinary person, though. He’s a Mongoose Man, a cyborg-like, elite soldier whose primary duty is the preservation of the human race (kicking ass is his other priority).

Therein lies one of the main complexities of Pepper’s character. He’s extremely resourceful, intelligent, and experienced, having lived hundreds of years thanks to his cyborg implants, but he’s also pragmatic to the extreme, and not above sacrificing innocents if that’s what it takes for him to live to fight another day. If those less equipped to save themselves must be sacrificed, so be it. This dilemma lies at the heart of many conflicts for Pepper; it should go without saying that it also plays a part in the unfolding of events in Sly Mongoose.

In contrast to Pepper’s seemingly unlimited resourcefulness is Timas, a teenage resident of the floating city of Yatapek (which Pepper is falling to in the opening scene) on Chilo. Like Pepper, Timas belongs to an elite group, though not a military one. Timas is a xocoyotzin, a person specially chosen to service a mining machine that prowls Chilo’s surface looking for raw materials. Yatapek is not a wealthy city, and much of their technology has become outdated and fallen into disrepair. The environmental suits the xocoyotzin must wear to survive conditions on the surface are only large enough for younger people to wear, so that as one gets older eventually one becomes too big for the suit. For Timas, serving his city is a privilege and an honor, and so he fights to prolong his ability to serve in that role by ritually expunging himself of any food he eats. It’s a terrible burden to place on one so young; we learn a lot about Timas’s character and courage in those scenes alone.

There is more.

Pepper crash lands in Yatapek, and we soon learn exactly why he was de-orbiting with only a heatshield between him and certain death. You see, he was trying to get away from something, and it’s not long before that something follows him down. Other cities are alerted to the threat. One such city sends an emissary, a girl roughly Timas’s age named Katerina, who possesses an eye that all of her people are able to see through. Both her and Timas have pre-conceived notions of the other, notions that change as they gradually bond with one another. There is adventure, and action, and harrowing encounters… Like I noted above, no spoilers, but let’s just say that Pepper, Timas, and Katerina find the entire world of Chilo at risk and are thrust into the role of saviors.

Buckell draws from his Caribbean upbringing, so imagining a mech-warrior-like soldier with dreadlocks or distinctly futuristic, island-like cultures is not far from reality. I found this injection of originality refreshing, though I have to admit to some reluctance to embrace it at first if only because it’s not what I’m used to. I went with it, though, and Buckell makes it work. The author’s style is fast-paced: chapters are generally short and he wastes nearly zero time pontificating or throwing “info dumps” at the reader. His characters are engaging as well. I perhaps liked Pepper the best, but Timas is the true underdog here given his situation. I genuinely wanted to see him both fulfill his duty and save himself at the same time.

The only character I did not become engaged with was Katerina, who has sacrificed much of her individuality to serve as a speaker for her collected people. Perhaps it is that aspect of her make-up which has stolen part of her humanity and therefore disengages the reader from her. In any case, I think her role was greatly overshadowed by Pepper and Timas to the point of irrelevance at times. But that in itself takes nothing from the enjoyment of the story.

As an aside, I also received an advanced copy of Seeds of Change and guess who just happens to have contributed a story to that compilation but Tobias Buckell himself? The story features Buckell’s principal character Pepper, so I’m eager to jump in. Meanwhile, though, check out Sly Mongoose. It’s worth your time.

Robert Asprin has passed, Thieve's World Review

Image result for thieves worldSeems like too many legends (or at least notable people) in the science fiction and fantasy genres have been passing into the next world all too often of late.

This time it's Robert Asprin whose greatest influence, for me, was the Thieves' World series. The only thing left to say is: Thank you, Mr. Asprin, for such a wonderful collection of stories. It held me enthralled many a night when I was a child.

In honor of Mr. Asprin, I'm re-posting my Thieve's World post taken from my old blog. Here you go:

Thieve's World

I read a lot when I was younger. Before college, before my first job back in California, before a move to Texas, a house & new job, marriage, dogs, another new job, realizing that I'm not getting any younger and if I really want to have a book published I better get on it... back when it seemed I had nothing but time (relative to how hectic life is now, anyway). I do still read, of course, just not as much. Where before it might have taken me a week or less to plow through a book, now it takes me 2-3 weeks if not longer.

Of those books I read when I was in my more formative years were such classics as Robert E. Howard's Conan series, Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Pyrdain, C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Terry Brooks's Shannara books, and, last but not least, the series which will always have an honored place on my bookshelf, the 12-book anthology known as Thieves' World.

Let's go back a little. The original Thieves' World series began in 1979 with the debut book generically named Thieves' World. Later anthologies came out about once/year (or more) and ran until 1989 when the series went on hiatus, which basically means the authors/creators/editors all (or singly) decided it was time to take a break and devote time to other projects. Thieves' World was a "shared-world" anthology, meaning multiple authors had a hand in its creation, evolution, and in its cast of characters. As you can imagine, when you throw in such authors as Lynn Abbey, Robert Asprin, David Drake, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Poul Anderson, C.J. Cherryh, and others, you've got something special and, more importantly, a playing field fit for some real competition. You see, the authors were continuously trying to one-up the other, pitting the characters they created against those created by the other authors. Theft, extortion, kidnapping, blackmail, torture... all of these things were allowed. The one thing that was not allowed, the "golden rule" as it were, was that no author could kill another author's characters. Barring that, anything goes, and did.

Image result for thieves worldThieve's World was an inspiring series, both then and now. Lynn Abbey, you see, has started the series anew. The first book is Sanctuary, a novel length work that takes place many years after the heroes and villains of the original series are dead and gone or simply moved on. Most of them, anyway. As I read through Sanctuary, revisiting the city of the same name where much, if not all, of the storytelling takes place, I find myself longing to go back and re-read the first 12 books again. The Street of Red Lanterns, the Vulgar Unicorn, characters such as Shadowspawn, Tempus Thales, Molin Torchholder... by the gods, this is the stuff of legend! Imagine a boy first getting his glimpse of this wondrous place... a city where gods walked the streets, thieves and assassins plied their respective trades, priests, witches and hazard-mages met for a quiet drink or to do battle, the S'danzo read the future, and the walking dead ruled in a part of the city called The Shambles.

Now, the series continues with Sanctuary. Written by Lynn Abbey, who is one of the original editors and contributors of the series, Sanctuary is a novel that bridges the time-gap between those original 12 books and what appears to be a new shared-world series with multiple contributing authors. I won't say a whole lot about the novel Sanctuary right now other than that I like it. I'll save the rest for a future review.

Look at your own world in your fiction and see if you think you might invoke such nostalgia and wonder 10, 20, or even more years from now when some reader is reminded of your work. All too often fiction of all kinds comes and go's, forgotten as it falls out-of-print. Even the original Thieves' World books are out-of-print, though there is a movement to revive the series.

For now, though, if you don't own a previous run of those first 12 books and can't find them on eBay, you'll have to satisfy yourself with Sanctuary and the books that come after.