Archive for April, 2013

The Doomsday Vault

Posted: April 20, 2013 in Reading
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It’s steampunk day on the blog today! Steampunk seems like it’s everywhere despite being one of the newer subgenre/culture/aesthetic of the SF world. I’m still ok with that. It’s nifty in of itself and it hasn’t gotten so big it becomes annoying. But because steampunk is the new trendy kind of thing, I feel the need to be extra careful picking and choosing what I read in the subgenre. I don’t want to get saddled with some bandwagon shovelware that has some gears taped onto it. I am cautious with my steampunk.

So imagine my surprise when I hit a home run off a random, off the shelf find.

The Doomsday Vault by Steven Harper. Bam! Back of the book action!

The Honorable Alice B. Michaels is in a life-or-death struggle for survival – socially speaking, that is. At age twenty-one, her unladylike interest in automatons, and the unfortunate deaths of most of her family from the clockwork plague, have sealed her fat as a less than desirable marriage prospect. But a series of strange occurrences is about to lead Alice in a direction quite beyond the pale.

High above the earth on the American airship USS Juniper, Gavin Ennock lives for the wind and the sky and his fiddle. After privateers attack the Juniper, he is stranded on the dank, dirty, merciless streets of London. When Alice’s estranged aunt leaves her a peculiar inheritance, she encounters Gavin under most unusual – even shocking – circumstances.

Then Alice’s inheritance attracts the attention of the Third Ward, a clandestine organization that seizes the inventions of mad geniuses the plague leaves behind – all for the good of the Empire. But even the Third Ward has secrets. And when Alice and Gavin discover them, a choice must be made between the world and the Empire, no matter the risk to all they hold dear.

Whew. That was a long one. And actually one of the more accurate Back of the Book blurbs I’ve read. If you check out the exert on the inside of the front cover, you even get to know there are zombies living in the alleys of London. Zombies are starting to get so much hype, they may reach public consciousness saturation and implode soon. It’s becoming one of those things I’m wary of now, but fortunately, the zombies aren’t just pasted in for the hell of it with this book. They’re worldbuilding, background and a few plot points. They’re not the focus of the book, but are a nice aesthetic touch

Speaking of aesthetics, Vault is dripping in steampunk tropes. Automatons, being the old timey English word for robots before the Czech coined the word robots, are all over the place. Clockwork gadgets and tech are all over the place. That clockwork cat on the front is actually Alice’s cat. There are airships and pirates. The British women are all prim and proper. The Americans are dashing rogues. Even if you just barely touch steampunk, these are all tropes you’ve seen before.

So what’s made me blast through this book in just a couple days? A slow day at work helped, but remember, tropes are just tools for the writer. The same hammer that tacks a picture nail can build a whole house. Steampunk tropes infuse every aspect of the book, but they never felt stale once. Vault ran at an invigorating pace. It is spot on and absolutely flies. Remember the Third Ward? Vault is a steampunk secret agent book. The world is going to get saved here and that’s something that involves a lot of running, shooting, explosions and occasional punching.

Harper gives us two POV characters in Vault, Alice and Gavin. I liked them both but I felt Alice was a much cooler character. She feels she’s obligated to conform to a very stuffy British society because she’s the daughter of a baron. She doesn’t really want to, as much as she keeps telling herself. Her talents are way more inline with building and fixing automatons. Alice is a woman who wants to change and struggles to accept it within herself so she can act upon it. It’s a slow play, change doesn’t come to her in any sort of sudden realization. That kind of stuff is very compelling to me even if you can see point Z from the start at point A. The journey is well written which is what matters.

And that’s the pattern throughout this book. The secret agent aspects of Vault are certainly unique, but overall I had a feeling of “the familiar done very well.” Even steampunk dabblers would probably feel this way. Vault is a kindred spirit of Boneshaker. That’s a good thing though. Boneshaker is to steampunk as Neuromancer is to cyberpunk. Nothing wrong with being influenced by the best. Even as first in a series, Vault took the time to tie up most of the loose ends. There’s just enough to throw you into the next book but no rage inducing cliffhanger. There’s a lot of potential in the lead up to Book Two. I seriously want to see this world’s China. I’ve certainly been left wanting to read more. That’s a theme for me this week.

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The Desert Spear

Posted: April 18, 2013 in Reading
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I’ve been on a fantasy kick with my reading the last few weeks. I think it’s been to counter all the space pirates in my writing. Next up, sequel time! It seems everything is part of a series now and stand alones just don’t happen anymore. That’s a mixed bag, especially when you don’t read the series back to back to back (et cetera). But there’s a comfort of the known quantity, particularly when the first was so enjoyable.

Enter The Desert Spear by Peter V Brett.

Back of the Book shenanigans are happening right now! (Note, that I am reading the back of the book for the first time as I type this. It was completely a “Yay! Book two! That’s all I need to know” moment.)

The sun ins setting on humanity. The night now belongs to voracious demons that prey upon a dwindling population forced to cower behind half-forgotten symbols of power. Legends tell of a Deliver: a general who once bound all mankind into a single force that defeated the demons. But is the return of the Deliverer just another myth? Perhaps not. Out of the desert rides Ahmann Jardir, who has forged the desert tribes into a demon-killing army. He has proclaimed himself Shar’Dama Ka, the Deliverer, and he carries ancient weapons – a spear and a crown – that give credence to his claim. But the Northerners claim their own Deliverer: the Warded Man, a dark, forbidding figure. Once, the Shar’Dama Ka and the Warded Man were friends. Now they are fierce adversaries. Yet as old allegiances are tested and fresh alliances forged, all are unaware of the appearance of a new breed of demon, more intelligent – and deadly – than any that have come before.

Remember the first book, The Warded Man? The things I talked about over in that post were mostly how the book sprawled and felt like Act One rather than a full on story arc. Yeah the sprawl continues here. Some of the stuff that wasn’t really resolved from the first book, gets addressed here and solved in its own way. And as the author is currently writing the fourth book, there’s plenty that doesn’t get fixed by the end of page 638. The sprawl was still handled well in Spear so I’m ok with it. In fact, if anything, the sprawl is even more widespread. The first book had three POVs, this one has seven. Gutsy move, Mr. Brett.

And it was a tough sell in the front end of Spear. The first 200ish pages are all Jardir. He was a non-POV character in Warded Man. Pay attention to the dates in Jardir’s chapters because they overlap with some of the events of Warded Man. Just like the three characters from the first book, we get to see Shar’Dama Ka’s childhood. (Also Abban, but he doesn’t get a POV in Spear until the last third) At first I groaned a bit when it went back to his childhood. After chapter one, I totally thought Jardir was a giant asshole. The kneejerk reaction to an asshole’s childhood is “Ok, the author wants the sympathy card in play.” Jardir and his Krasians do some really horrible things as part of their war with the North. (Everyone goes to war with the North… someday someone’s going to go Southeast)

So Jardir was a tough sell for 200 pages before we jump to another POV, not to mention all the times we swing back there. He is the titular Desert Spear in a figurative sense and he does wield the literal Desert Spear. By the end I still thought he was an asshole. But I still couldn’t put the book down. It can’t be easy to make a jerk so enjoyable to read.

Even without Jardir, the storyline of the series has moved to darker places. One of the new POVs is Renna. She was a non-POV character from Arlen’s (the actual Warded Man) who showed up early in the first book and frankly, I forgot all about her until her chapters started showing up. She’s on the wrong end of a battered, brutal, incestuous and unconsented relationship. It gets heavy and uncomfortable, but it’s all for the greater good of the story. You have to know where Renna started from to really appreciate where she ends up. By the end of the book, she became one of my more favorite characters. Her story arc in The Demon Cycle isn’t anywhere near over, but damn, the potential she has is amazing.

Grimdark is one of those things all over the SF world lately and I’ve certainly gone on a lot about how Spear is darker than the first book. Don’t even start to call this grimdark. That term has a gratuitous connotation to it. Everything here is story and character driven. There’s a mindset of “If the characters aren’t put through the worst, how can we know if they’re at their best?” Everything balances out. There’s no doom and gloom just for the sake of doom and gloom.

One aspect of the game which was cranked up a notch with Spear are the corelings, the demons. In the first book there were just a few elemental types, rock, wood, flame… I don’t remember if we saw more than that. Sand probably as Arlen went to the desert. There are glimpses of more, like the giant river demons that look like toads. I want to see even more of all these new demons but at the same time, even the glimpses show off the layers of world building present even if I don’t get to see it all unfold in front of me. I’ve said plenty of times, I like me some world building.

So overall, just like the first book, The Desert Spear left me wanting more. Enough gets resolved within it that I never felt frustrated as I raced along to the ending, but there is so much more waiting to be tapped into for this series. I want to know where Renna’s character is going. I want Abban, the ludicrously rich Krasian merchant in his society’s lowest cast, to get more POV chapters. And I know Jardir’s scheming wife, Inevera, is on the cover of the next book so I would think she becomes a POV character.

Isn’t that the best thing a book can do though? You can microanalyze all you want but if a book sticks around in your head leaving you wanting more, there’s not much more it can do. Read this series. Spear will stick with you even more than Warded Man.

The Human Division

Posted: April 17, 2013 in Genre, Reading
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The Human Division is John Scalzi’s grand experiment. I’m sure you know all about Scalzi and if you don’t, fire up twitter and find his blog. It’s been released in 13 Episodes from January until last week. One one level, it’s a novel with an installment plan, but it’s really more than that. And there’s a part of me that wants to do the traditional run through like I do with my other posts about the things I’m reading. But I don’t really think it works here because The Human Division isn’t a traditional book.

I can use the term “book” somewhat loosely here because “book” implies a certain word lengths and heft (even if it doesn’t always mean the physical words on paper anymore). So what are the Episodes? They’re a little bit like short stories. Each one has a self contained story arc. I’m not counting words but I’m pretty sure most, if not all, fall under the numerical definition of short story. They all fit together to make something more than a short story compilation. You can read one, but if you read them all you get a much richer tapestry of words.

So let’s just compromise on the semantics and keep calling them Episodes. That’s what they’re really called and it really is a fitting term. Structurally, they do remind me of a television show. Each episode more or less stands alone with an overall story arc across the whole thing.

How were the episodes? Fantastic. If you’ve ever read Scalzi, that’s probably a no brainer. He’s one of maybe a half dozen authors that I will read anything of sight unseen with no hesitation. In fact, not having the patience to wait until the print version of this comes out is one of the reasons my Nook and my Dead Tree Editions all coexist peacefully.

Since I just lobbed the easy one over the plate, the ereader is what allows this grand experiment in writing to happen. The installment plan for writing harkens back to the 70s and farther back when the print magazines were major players in SF. I know a lot of my favorite Zelazny stuff was published across multiple months in F&SF or Asimov’s. One of those two. I don’t want to get up from my desk to find the book right now. But it’s a thing. Print digests wouldn’t work for The Human Division or any kind of serial story telling anymore. The edigests are monthly and a lot of the print titles have moved to bimonthly. I think it would be extremely easy to lose the momentum and mojo with anything longer than a week wait. It was long enough for me to itch for more but not so long I decided to say meh when it came out every Tuesday.

Now The Human Division must have been successful experiment. I saw all the different issues sitting on the USA Today best seller lists. I’m sure they were all over Amazon, B+N, take your pick. I know I’m still itching to give Scalzi a dollar on Tuesdays. But more than a personal success for Scalzi and Tor, I think this should be seen as a success for the whole genre.

All of us. The whole damn genre.

This is a new way to tell stories that we didn’t have before. Well… maybe we did, but it wasn’t boxed up in a nice neat little package like these Episodes have been. I think this should be embraced as a new tool in our arsenal. For a long time there were Short Stories, Novellas and Novels. And then the Novella kind of died as paperback page counts became cheaper to print. And then Short Stories were hurting pretty bad. I have never ever seen any print short story digests in a store other than F&SF and Asimov’s. Ereaders have brought back both of them and made them viable again. This new serial / episodic format is entirely new. We should embrace this option. As far as I know, other genres aren’t. With SF’s more natural affinity for new tech, why wouldn’t we? Filmmakers have already jumped on this with the rise of YouTube. When I started film school and still had dial up internet at home, you had to drop big dollars and pray for some distribution after getting a foot in the door with the festival circuit. How many webseries are there now? A bazillion. I counted. They run the gambit of all types and styles. Hey guess what? We can do that with words too.

Don’t take this as the banner of the One True Path. I’m not a vanguard for anything, although I do enjoy the word “vanguard.” I think we need to just celebrate that the option is there. It won’t work for every story. I know nothing I have in the works will fit an episodic format. Yet. But I’m sure someone does and they’re writing the hell out of something new and fresh because we have a new way of telling stories. And that’s the part that matters.

It certainly didn’t hurt the argument that The Human Division is epic level of awesome. But you knew that already.

Beta Readers

Posted: April 13, 2013 in Reading, Writing

It’s been almost two weeks since the Amity v1.6 went out to the dozen people who have been excited enough and awesome enough AND supplied with sufficient free time to do some beta reading for me.

A week ago, I realized I was being super stressed out and a surly grot because I was running a high level of background agida waiting for people to tell me what was going on with it.

Earlier this week, I officially began getting harassed for a sequel.

When I passed it out, everyone asked what I was looking for out of the read through. I told everyone to give me the full red pen treatment, crappy spelling / typing all the way up to pacing and flow. I keep telling people, “Be as harsh as you need to be. It’s only going to make the book better.” That’s easy to say. Fortunately, no one has really laid into it yet. One person has finished my novel other than me. A few other people have started giving me early notes.

So how’s it looking?

Overall it’s been pretty positive. So a big fuck yeah on that.

A lot of the stuff that’s being flagged for work, it’s where I had a lot of my own questions and concerns. That certainly makes it a lot less traumatic. I’m getting a lot of “More characterization, earlier.” I think that problem is coming from a couple places. I’m gunning for action when I start. One of the most action packed scenes is on page one of Amity. I don’t like to infodump. I don’t like to step away from what’s going on for a paragraph or two to just drop excess description. Even before my years at film school, I had a cinematic imagination when I read and that’s not conducive to stepping back too much. There’s a tough line between spreading characterization into the movement of a scene and just not putting enough in. I missed it a bit, but I’ve got a plan to fix it. I’ve got two or three chapters I am going to add into the first act. Characterization through story and it happens to coincide with areas where I was told “Hey, I want to know about that!”

I think the characterization and my feel for the characters got better as the novel went on. And that makes sense. I knew the characters better myself as I went on. Front end touch up in that aspect isn’t unexpected. I think I will be able to avoid that in the next novel by tweaking my process a bit. I had a front to back outline of Amity that was very rough when I started. It was enough to point me in the right direction when I was stuck, but for the most part, I outlined as I went. For the next one, I am going to make it a point to have a very extensive and in depth outline before I start. Writing a big ol’ outline ahead of time should get me a real good feel for the characters before I open up chapter one.

So it’s coming. I’ve stamped down a lot of the agida and stress from the wait. I’m getting what I need out of this, a better book.