Archive for April, 2014

(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.