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(This is a spoiler-free review of an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)

Joe Abercrombie’s “Half a King” is a mutant love child of Hamlet and Oliver Twist. It’s what you’d get if Joss Whedon decided to write a fantasy novel. It’s delicious.

The protagonist, Yarvi, is the ugly duckling of his royal family: born with a deformed hand, his only path in life is to become a minister and advise his older brother, who is obviously going to become the king. At least that was the plan, until both Yarvi’s brother and his father were killed in battle. What happens when a painfully shy teenager with serious self-esteem issues and no leadership skills becomes a king? Nothing good, that’s what.

Yarvi’s misadventures make for a highly addictive rollercoaster narrative as he goes from one worst-case scenario to another, getting an occasional bit of good luck that never lasts long enough. Abercrombie skillfully shows the protagonist’s growth and development as he’s forced to make hard choices and determine who his true friends are, and what he would (or wouldn’t) do for them. The story goes to some mighty dark places, but always stops just short of hopeless despair, keeping the reader engaged, enthralled and entertained.

By far my favorite thing about the book was an overabundance of medieval-style aphorisms. (Think Benjamin Franklin in the 1100s.) Inconspicuously scattered throughout the book, they help make the barbaric “might is right” atmosphere that much more believable. There are several interesting plot twists that can easily be missed and that provide “a-ha!” moments toward the end. The most attentive readers might be able to notice a couple of clues and put together a very unusual science fiction Easter egg that has no bearing on the plot but makes me wish for a sequel that would shed some light on the mystery.

The only gripe I have with “Half a King” is its use of the Rambo trope: warriors that spent several years in chains turn into mean, lean killing machines the moment they break free. Then again, I suppose it was either that or several dozen pages of medieval swordplay montage and physical therapy (also featuring swordplay because, you know, fantasy and stuff). Aside from that minor blight, “Half a King” was probably one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Score: 5 stars

Release date: July 15, 2014

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Book review: X-Men Noir

“X-Men Noir” is a comic book (or a graphic novel, as all the cool kids call them these days) with an intriguing concept: what if everyone’s favorite X-Men lived in the gritty noir world of the 1920s? And what if they didn’t have superpowers?

The book’s creators (writer Fred Van Lente and artist Dennis Calero) made a good effort at exploring the concept, but the end result isn’t as user-friendly as it might have been. The art in the book is digital and not hand-drawn (think “Ex Machina” comics) and, while that’s not a big issue in and of itself, it’s difficult to tell apart the book’s many characters who talk, dress and look very much alike. The overabundance of dark colors in the book doesn’t help differentiate the characters and makes for some very confusing action scenes on several occasions.

As for the writing… Van Lente put together an interesting world where goodie-two-shoes X-Men are sociopaths, not mutants. Professor Xavier is a rogue psychiatrist who thought sociopaths were the next stage of human evolution. Thus, instead of the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters we have the Xavier’s School for Exceptionally Wayward Youth, where he helped his feral teenagers become better criminals. A lot of characters from the X-Men universe are featured in the book as main characters as well as cameos, but mostly under their regular, non-superhero names, which might confuse some casual comics readers. 

Personally, I know more about X-Men than most people, and even I had to turn to the almighty Google to look up just who the main character was supposed to be. (For some bizarre reason, he’s not even from the X-Men but from a comic book released some 30 years before the franchise was even created.) The book’s narrative seems too rushed and compressed – it may have worked better if it were stretched across 6-8 issues, instead of just 4. As it is, the ending, which combines just about every noir element out there, will probably leave you confused…

However, there are some good parts as well. X-Men are occasionally made fun of: Iceman insists on being called by his moniker and makes puns about “icing” his victims with an icepick; Professor X’s file on Beast notes that he likes to use big words he doesn’t always understand. There’s this gem of a quote: “They stole everything that wasn’t nailed down! And the they took the nails out of the rest of it and stole it, too!” After each of the book’s 4 chapters, there’s an installment of a short pulp story written by none other than Bolivar Trask, in which he talks about Sentinels and sewers-dwelling mutants. That makes for some interesting reading, especially if you like meta narratives.

Overall, the book left me confused and a little disappointed. Although it’s clear that a lot of people put a lot of work into it, no book should ever leave its readers scratching their heads and going online to figure out what on earth actually happened in the final scene.

Score: 2 out of 5 stars

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(This is a spoiler-free review of an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)

“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North is a fascinating mix of “Groundhog Day” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” with some time travel thrown in for good measure.

The protagonist, Harry August, is one of the rare people who are unable to truly die: as soon as their body dies, their life starts over with the same parents, the same childhood, the same world – except this time they have a lifetime (or 15 lifetimes) of knowledge and experience to draw back on. As Harry August dies for the 11th time, a little girl warns him about the impending end of the world…

The novel is beautifully crafted: the author not only came up with a fascinating concept that’s very rarely seen in science fiction, but developed it and fleshed it out to such an extent that the book’s universe seems quite believable. We get glimpses of other immortals (or ouroborans, as they call themselves) and the many, many different ways they spend their endless lives. We get cautionary tales of what can happen if somebody tries introducing advanced technology centuries before its time. (Alternate history fans will love that part.) We see the best and the worst that strange immortality brings out in regular people – and how they deal with it.

The person writing under the pseudonym of Claire North, whoever he or she truly is, did a marvelous job when researching the book: as a Russian immigrant, I can attest that the chapters that take place in the USSR are absolutely believable, which isn’t something I can say about a lot of books that pick exotic locales just for the fun of it.

One of the best things about this book is the witty internal narrative by the protagonist, with small hilarious quips and observations. Consider, for example, “I was out of shape, having never been in much of a shape to get out of” – or “if Pietrok-111 was a one-horse town, Pietrok-112 was the glue factory where that horse went to die.” But by far the best feature of the book (at least in my opinion) is the way the narrative loops upon itself, much like the ouroboros itself – but you’ll have to read it for yourself to figure it out.

This book raises many interesting philosophical questions and will keep fans of hard science fiction (or time travel fiction, for that matter) on the edge of their seats.

Score: five stars

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My mother once gave me a bathrobe for Christmas. I exchanged it for a telescope.

(This is a spoiler-free review of the advance review copy provided by the publisher.)

“The Forever Watch” by David Ramirez just might be one of the greatest dystopian novels of our time, though you wouldn’t know it by the way it begins.

The book takes place aboard a giant spaceship “Noah,” which carries the last surviving humans from Earth to the planet of Canaan. The voyage will last over a thousand years, but nobody minds it because life is good: cybernetic implants amplify people’s natural abilities and turn them into telepaths, healers, super-strong bruisers, etc. There is no war, no racism, no religious discrimination (mostly because religion has been quietly eliminated over the years) and everything is just peachy. Or is it?..

The main character is the administrator of the city planning bureau. The book begins with her waking up after her 9-month-long breeding duty. (In the wonderful space future, you just take a 9-month nap and wake up to find a large cash bonus in your bank account – somebody else will raise the baby for you.) Shortly afterwards, her friend, a bruiser with an enhanced metabolism, asks her to help him out with an odd case he’s been working on. As they investigate a bizarre murder, they discover far more than they’d ever expected to find.

At 336 pages, “The Forever Watch” is an impressive novel, especially considering it’s Ramirez’s first novel. The plot takes course over the period of several years, flowing smoothly from one key point to the next, evenly spreading the introspective chapters and the gory, bloody action scenes featuring telepathically enhanced characters.

The way the story slowly but surely descends from a verifiable Utopia into a dysyopian nightmare is remarkable – a hard sci-fi version of “Faust” if I’ve ever seen one. Ramirez uses all the genre tropes – spaceships, aliens, mutants, psychics, self-aware computers and so many, many more – and weaves them into the narrative filled with plot twists and surprises that even the most astute reader would find hard to anticipate.

“The Forever Watch” is not a nice book. It’s not a happy book. It’s definitely not the kind of book you’d want to give your 11-year-old. But it’s the perfect book for our age, with its grim, gestalt message about surveillance and secrets, rebels and revolutions, freedom and responsibility. It’ll make you think and weep and gasp and wonder, as all great books are meant to do.

Score: five stars

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Claude Lalumière’s “Super Stories of Heroes & Villains” anthology is a must-read if you’re a fan of the superhero genre. (And judging by the success of the “Avengers” movie, there are millions of fans out there.) The anthology features 27 stories, many of them by lesser-known (but highly talented) writers, as well as stories by the omnipresent Cory Doctorow, Kelly Link and George R.R.Martin.

Although some of the stories aren’t quite about superheroes, most of them take traditional superhero tropes and have fun with them – or create strange worlds with their own mythology. I’m giving this anthology a well-deserved 5-star rating, with a small caveat: a couple of stories talk about the characters’ sex lives in great detail, so you might not want to buy this book for your nephew’s birthday.

And now, a brief guide to the stories:

“Ubermensch!” by Kim Newman: what if Superman crashlanded in Bavaria instead of Kansas? And what if he became a Nazi? The protagonist is a Jew who spent 50 years after WW2 hunting Nazis and who finally gets a chance to interview the captured Superman. Excellent story and a great way to start off the anthology.

“A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” by Chris Roberson: a hero with mystical powers and not-so-mystical .45 Colts searches for a demon in a California town during WW2. Well written story that, among other things, features an unorthodox way to protect your secret identity.

“Trickster” by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due: a great story (almost a novella, really) told from the point of view of an African tribesman who encounters an American college student after a botched alien invasion. The story is told in bits and pieces and it’s never quite clear what exactly happened in the outside world, but the ambiguity only makes it better.

“They Fight Crime!” by Leah Bobet: a very short, very unusual story about love triangles, secret romances, superpowers and using “fighting crime” as a euphemism for a certain adult pastime.

“The Rememberer” by J.Robert Lennon: a surprisingly realistic look at what would happen to a person with super-memory in today’s world. This story provides a rare glimpse at the psychological side effects of having superpowers.

“The Nuckelavee: A Hellboy Story” by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola: Hellboy is tasked with protecting the last living member of an old clan from being killed.

“Faces of Gemini” by A.M.Dellamonica: twin sisters with an unusual origin story team up to rescue their captured teammates. The “bickering sisters” subplot is straight out of Buffy (of which the author is a huge fan), but the odd number of sexual innuendos and scenes where both sisters prance around naked and wear each other’s clothes make this an R-rated story, in my opinion.

“Origin Story” by Kelly Link: in a world where almost everyone has superpowers, a famous superhero comes back to his hometown for an annual parade and hooks up with his high school sweetheart. This story is great because it’s unlike anything else: snippets of dialogue during the characters’ pillow talk paint a world with bizarre arch-enemies, music-obsessed mutants who hide in the forest, cabarets where girls show off their quirky powers, etc. Nothing in this story is quite as it seems, though…

“Burning Sky” by Rachel Pollack: some of the stories in this anthology are about superheroes with occasional sexual overtones. Pollack’s story, on the other hand, is all about sex, with some superhero action in the background. Following in the footsteps of Charles Moulton (the creator of Wonder Woman), Pollack explores some of the more private aspects of liberated crime-fighting women.

“The Night Chicago Died” by James Lowder: a phenomenal mix of pulp action, superheroes and zombies set in the 1920s Chicago. One of the longest – and best – stories in the anthology.

“Novaheads” by Ernest Hogan: I had no idea that lucha noir even existed, and I think I’m hooked now. This story’s cyberpunk world features a Latino version of the United States, with an omnipotent corporation (“Better living through mind control!”), its genetically-enhanced 8-foot-tall wrestlers and street drugs with rather messy side effects.

“Clash of Titans (A New York Romance)” by Kurt Busiek: a hilarious story about a never-ending feud between a brilliant villainess and a goodie-two-shoes superhero (think “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”). The protagonist is a hapless guy in charge of New York City’s tourism PR who just wants to find an affordable condo in the city.

“The Super Man and the Bugout” by Cory Doctorow: what if Superman lived in Canada and had an overbearing Jewish mother? And what if there was no more crime left to fight? Short, funny and quirky.

“Grandma” by Carol Emshwiller: even superheroes can grow old and feeble. A little girl’s story about her formerly-superpowered grandma.

“The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door” by Jonathan Levin: sometimes all you need to be a supervillain is industrial-strength misanthropy, some writing talent and a vivid imagination. So vivid, in fact, that some of your creations may come to life…

“Sex Devil” by Jack Pendarvis: this isn’t a superhero story per se – it’s a teenager’s pitch to comic book publishers, filled with Freudian overcompensation and a young teen’s lexicon. Funny in a “meta” way, but that’s about it.

“The Death Trap of Dr.Nefario” by Benjamin Rosenbaum: it’s not easy being Gotham’s top psychiatrist. A fun and unusual perspective on Batman’s and Robin’s relationship.

“Man oh Man – It’s Manna Man” by George Singleton: what if you had the power to temporarily hijack somebody’s vocal cords? The protagonist finds a creative way to use his strange and seemingly unremarkable power.

“The Jackdaw’s Last Case” by Paul Di Filippo: I don’t know much about Kafka, but after this great story, which features him as a superhero, I want to know more!

“The Biggest” by James Patrick Kelly: a country bumpkin with superpowers travels to New York City to make a name for himself during the Great Depression. The story also features a cameo appearance by King Kong!

“Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan Alive: a Definitive Biography of Lord Greystroke” by Win Scott Eckert: I’m not entirely sure what to make of this story. It’s not fictional and it doesn’t feature any superheroes. It describes a genre of real-life biographies for fictional characters and talks about the most prominent writer in that field. So, basically, this is a story about stories about stories. Very meta, if you’re into that sort of thing.

“The Zeppelin Pulps” by Jess Nevins: an unusual mix of fact and fiction, this story is an article on zeppelin noir books that never existed.

“Wild Cards: Prologue & Interludes” by George R.R.Martin: if you’ve never heard about the “Wild Cards” series, this story is a great introduction. An alien “wild card” virus released in New York in 1946 kills 90% of the population, turns 9% into deformed freaks (jokers) and gives the remaining 1% (aces) godlike powers. As a result, the world’s history is forever altered. If you like realistic superheroes and/or alternate history, give this story (and series!) a shot.

“Wild Cards: Just Cause” by Carrie Vaughn: an action-packed and somewhat said (but oh-so-well-written) story about Wild Card superheroes wroking for the United Nations and trying to save the world, one disaster area at a time.

“Bluebeard and the White Buffalo: A Rangergirl Yarn” by Tim Pratt: a short story set in Tim Pratt’s fictional 19th-century United Stats, where Wild West is wilder than you can imagine, with cowboys who ride unicorns, with steampunk and magic, with vague prophecies of a miraculous buffalo birth…

“The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children” by Will Clarke: a quirky story about a small Louisiana town dealing with a generation of kids with superpowers.

“Pinktastic and the End of the World” by Camille Alexa: a short piece of Young Adult fiction, with superpowers and unrequited crushes.

“The Detective of Dreams” by Gene Wolfe: a strange story told by a detective in pre-WW2 Europe investigating abnormal nightmares.

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“The Space Needle” – 3,060,000 search results on Google
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“The Cleansing” is the first book in the “Earth Haven” trilogy by Sam Kates – and it doesn’t disappoint. H.G.Wells was the first author who wrote about an alien invasion in his 1897 “War of the Worlds.” Today, 117 years later, that concept seems almost mundane, but Kates managed to find a few new angles that make his book stand out.

For one thing, the alien invasion in this book begins in a very low-key way. There are no spaceships and lasers – in fact, the aliens have lived among us for a very long time and they’ve come up with a great way to get rid of the pesky humans. (I won’t post any further details to avoid spoiling the book for you.)

The book’s pace is deceptively slow, with just the right amount of foreshadowing and quite a few gory details that show how 99.98% of mankind died out. One of the main characters is a British schoolteacher who is one of the lucky 0.02% that survived. The book switches between his point of view and those of the aliens who have spent far too much time on Earth and, in some cases, became a bit too attached to humans.

Despite the book’s dark and gloomy atmosphere, the author maintains just the right balance: the aliens aren’t omniscient (and, on occasion, screw up just like a baseline human would) and the human characters react to the near-extinction of the human race in very believable ways. There are occasional gems, too: the author explains the origin of vampire myths and the true purpose behind the Stonehenge. (The latter makes just as much sense as any of our current theories.) Although most of the book doesn’t feature a lot of action, Kates does a great job of painting a “what if” scenario. Here is hoping the next two books are even better!

Score: five stars

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“The other day I was pondering some crazy Japanese game show and I came to the realization that we probably have little hope of understanding an Alien race, because I can’t understand Japanese pop culture at all.”


(Oh, Internets, how much I love thee!)

Some science fiction books have dozens of characters and giant, space-opera settings. Tony McFadden’s “Have Wormhole, Will Travel” is from the other end of the spectrum: it tells a single story with only six characters and few plot twists.

The premise is definitely original: the aliens live among us, and they’ve been monitoring our scientific development for the past 400 years. Why? Because if we manage to develop space-flight technology, we’d most likely visit their planet and try to conquer it. (Humans don’t have a very good record when it comes to playing well with new neighbors.) The undercover aliens are tasked with sabotaging some of the more dangerous inventions. If that fails, there’s always the nuclear (or gamma, to be precise) option.

The main characters are two aliens that could almost pass for humans if you don’t look hard enough. They live in a suburb of Sydney and stalk a physics professor at the local university. They, in turn, are stalked by three local girls who are convinced they’re vampires.

The “Men in Black in reverse” premise is creative and the book has occasional hilarious gems such as: “the neighbour’s cat, a tabby male with the personality of a permanently pissed off high school teacher” or “You know there are no such things as vampires. The mythology about them has been around for centuries, but they are no more real than the Loch Ness Monster, werewolves or honest politicians.”

The author also knows his science – or knows somebody who does. There’s a brief history of breakthroughs in physics, a basic explanation of the string theory, wormholes, etc. This science fiction book actually pays attention to science!

The book’s plot moves fairly slowly, driven mostly by dialogue where the characters rehash the things the reader already knows. (If you liked the pace of Orson Scott Card’s “Xenocide,” you will love this book.) There isn’t a whole lot of action until the very end. The ending itself is very iffy from the ethical point of view. (Not unlike the ending in the “The Last of Us” video game.) It’s hard to root for the alleged good guys when they substitute one catastrophe for another instead of truly saving the day. Although the author put a fair amount of effort into fleshing out his characters, the “bad guys” in the book don’t seem all that bad and make some valid points.

Overall, this book’s strengths and weaknesses cancel each other out. It would make for some good, slow reading on a rainy day or during a flight, when you just want something amusing to pass the time.

Score: 3 stars

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