Review: “Arrival,” Ryk Brown

Pros: Nice variation on the survival genre
Cons: Childish adults (especially women)
Rating: 2 out of 5

Ryk Brown’s Arrival involves a small spaceship, the Icarus, scouting out three possible human-habitable planets. Their mother ship, the Daedalus (a colony ship), will use the information the Icarus obtains to decide which planet to go to–there isn’t enough fuel to change their minds past a certain point. Of course, the Icarus runs into all sorts of trouble–crash landings, crew spread into two groups, mysterious infection, bizarre blue-furred natives… They have all the problems! Unfortunately if they can’t figure them out in time, then the Daedalus will have to go to one of the other planets and our crew will never be rescued.

 

The first part of story does not mesh with the rest. It seems to be someone spying on a woman who’s just found out something that has devastated her. By the very end of the book this will make sense, but frankly it’s so far apart that I found the piece openly annoying at first because it was so coy with details. By the end it was shrug-worthy because that first piece didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t learn later. It adds little and increases initial confusion. At least if it had come last then it would have made immediate sense.

Particularly toward the beginning of the book, many of the characters (especially all the woman excluding the doctor) act like children. It’s hard to imagine how someone could have thought that these characters could possibly accomplish this mission. All the women whine and complain. Some of the men are assholes. There’s a situation where a woman may well have a broken rib, but the man she’s stranded with makes her do a lot of crap work because she was rude to him. And she seems to take this as her due (although with some grumbles), as though being mean to him was something that should be punished with pain and possible further injury. This section in particular really grated on me. Most of the characters are pretty shallow, and some of them are oddly unobservant (a character notices that his hair is turning blue and doesn’t seem to think anything is weird with that). When one woman manages to become drunk on virtually no alcohol, she acts and talks like a three-year-old (“Are you takin’ a wee-wee?”). We do eventually get a glimpse of the Daedalus, and every person who speaks up seems completely stereotypical and shallow.

It seems like the landing ship these guys used was practically designed to fail catastrophically. However, the inevitable landing calamities are handled well as tension-builders. Once everyone sets up a perimeter alarm, there’s no explanation for how a local creature gets past it without setting off the alarms.

The survivalist plot core is interesting and captivating. (I admit to a fondness for survival plots.) I just wish the characters measured up to that. When dealing with Sara and Mac being stranded by a sudden flood, I actually so disliked the stranded characters and how they handled this plot twist that I wrote “I hate these characters” in my notes.

SPOILER WARNING–the rest of this paragraph talks about some ending spoilers because I really want to address them. At the end, Jack (the captain of their group, who was split from the main group during landing) has transformed into one of the weird blue-furred native bipeds. At roughly the same time, the last of the crew is dealing with a horrible illness. Jack is able to save them, but gradually he loses more and more of his humanity. Before he bolts, he tells his remaining crew not to tell anyone about his transformation. So… they have absolutely no idea what caused his transformation and whether everyone else will eventually follow suit, but they obey his wishes and tell the Daedalus it’s safe to come down. So they’re risking the health of every single person on their colony ship just to save one guy’s… uh, reputation or something? And given that they had already noticed the blue bipeds, what are they going to tell the colonists when they inevitably notice them too–just tell them ignore it and it’ll go away? This whole part makes no sense. Someone’s just going to end up shooting him thinking he’s a dangerous animal. END SPOILERS

The survivalism was handled well and was fun to read, but the character issues were so terrible that I couldn’t justify a rating higher than two.

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Review: “Madelyn’s Last Dance,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Love the characters, especially Madelyn
Cons: Confusions
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s Madelyn’s Last Dance comes after book one: Madelyn’s Nephew and book two: Madelyn’s Mistake. I absolutely love the entire series. In Madelyn’s Last Dance the characters are fighting some of their worst enemies yet: each other. Ryan had his own secret experiments going on (dangerous ones). And Cleo sees Madelyn (and those who aid her) as a challenge to her authority.

The world-building is fascinating, and the characters wonderful. In particular I love Madelyn, whose emotions don’t really work the way others’ do. She can be dangerous to be around as she wades through trouble, mayhem, and betrayal. But she’s a key to keeping the town going. She’s willing to do the pragmatic things other characters aren’t, and sometimes this results in dead bodies. She particularly butts up against any kind of local authority, because she does things her way and isn’t going to change just because someone thinks ill of her. Only her nephew, Jacob, was able to even get her to spend time with other people–she’d been a hermit originally.

Madelyn begins the third book in the series dead. Obviously that’s likely to change since the series is about her, but I won’t get into details. She is one of the most interesting main characters I’ve seen in a while. People are rarely sure whether they should be thanking her or killing her for her actions–or maybe both. Luckily there are some people Madelyn trusts: Elijah (the man she’s in a relationship with), and Jacob (her nephew) are the main ones. They understand her (as well as possible) when others don’t.

You’ll absolutely want to read the first two books before this one, preferably just before. I think we also could have used even a few lines of context to remember what “The Wisdom” is. I know the author doesn’t want to spend a bunch of space retreading things, but even an off-handed comment or two can be enough to spark a memory.

The only problems I had with Madelyn’s Last Dance were pieces of confusion here and there. How exactly did people get buried in walls? Why did one hit go through a wolf, while others connected? Some of the setting became ‘malleable geometry’. I feel like I must have skimmed over some paragraph that would have caused everything to make sense. However, that didn’t particularly detract from the story for me.

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Review: “Evil,” Tijan

Pros: Semi-interesting plot
Cons: Depiction of powers; confusing; overly hyperbolic style
Rating: 2 out of 5

Shay lives in a family of four high-school-age half-demons. Her brother, Kellan, watches over her obsessively. Shay is supposed to be the most powerful of the four although no one’s seen her do much with her powers. Gus (female, nickname) and Vespar, the other two demon hybrids are barely-controlled and prone to killing people. From there, ahh… I think Shay is supposed to learn about her unusual powers and her odd parentage, with a result of falling into bed with her adoptive brother. There really wasn’t all that much going on that made any real impact.

 

Tijan’s Evil isn’t that different in structure from the myriad other paranormal romances out there. Unfortunately, that’s the only part that made much sense. The romance is between Shay and Kellan–adoptive sister and brother. The fact that they turn out to be unrelated will make this fine for some; the fact that it has incestuous overtones will cause others to avoid the story. (Although if you really want to see a genuine couple who probably do embody an incestuous relationship, take a look at Gus and Vespar. Perhaps they’re just very close as siblings, but it seemed to me that they were more than that.) We’re seeing a relationship develop between a half-angel (except that angels are called messengers) and a half-demon. Since the whole angel/demon romance thread had already come into use, and this story feels unexceptional, it doesn’t add much to the trend. The setup was kind of confusing. Information on the group’s supposed parents was confusing. How these four people came to believe themselves to be brothers and sisters, despite not entirely being so, is confusing. We’re clearly expected to feel chemistry between Kellan and Shay, but it took quite a while for that to even start building up.

The style is hyperbolic; I think that’s the author’s attempt to pull in emotional teenage audiences. I couldn’t get into the characters; they all felt like they were going crazy due to flimsy reasoning. We were supposed to think they were high-school aged, I think, but they came across as simultaneously childish and yet too old for high school.

From something I saw elsewhere I thought Evil would be more horror-based than paranormal-based; obviously it wasn’t. I was disappointed by that, so make sure you don’t come into this book with that expectation. I found the actual story to be kind of boring.

Somewhere toward the end of the book there was a quote that I thought summed things up perfectly:

This is just becoming ridiculous now.

Yes, yes it was. The book certainly could have been worse, but it could also have been much better.

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Review: “Ink and Bone,” Lisa Unger

Pros: Great setting and characters
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Lisa Unger’s Ink and Bone is a fantastic paranormal thriller tale. Finley, a woman who likes tattoos and fast motorcycles has a gift: she can perceive and speak with the dead, and she has powerful hunches and dreams. She’s been hearing an odd repeating squeaking noise, just as her grandmother, Eloise, does–although it’s clear to Eloise that this particular situation requires Finley’s aid and not hers. Finley would rather that the noises and voices went away, but at the same time she feels obligated to do something to help. Jones is a private detective who, with Eloise, has helped out on many cases. This time he’s going to be helping Finley. There’s a girl named Abbey who went missing in The Hollows. The police have given up, but Finley feels there’s more to be done.

 

All of the characters have depth and I found them all worth following and listening to. Finley’s struggling to keep her abilities from overwhelming the rest of her life, while also trying to figure how how she can use them to help people. Eloise is trying to walk a line between not giving Finley enough help, and giving her too much–Finley needs to find her own way to use her powers. Jones, that private detective, has very little screen time and yet I felt as though I knew him. The author spends some time describing how Finley’s loud, fast motorcycle helps to quiet the voices, as well as how her tattoos help to ground her. The explanations were poetic, brief, and beautiful. I had no trouble investing in the characters, including some of the ghosts. One of my favorite parts of the book is an explanation of how the living can haunt the dead, rather than the other way around.

At first I felt a little confused by the bad guys calling the girl they kidnapped Penny since we’re looking for Abbey–but then it became clear that every girl they kidnapped became ‘Penny’. They also share some other similarities, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. Penny’s situation wasn’t nearly as simple as in most thrillers, and that was fantastic. I shed a tear or two over her.

The Hollows–the town all this happens in–has its own agenda, and I want to read more of Unger’s books to find out more about this and see where it’s going.

The pacing was spot-on, with a great buildup, several plot threads going on, and a fascinating main storyline. I loved the setting as well, and just… well, pretty much everything. I’m already hunting down other Lisa Unger books to read!

 

Book provided free by publisher for review
Expected publication date: June 7, 2016

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Short Take: “Tenderling,” Amy Cross

Pros: Just plain fun
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

After a couple of other not-so-great books I read recently, I was desperately in need of something fun and good, along the lines of horror or sci-fi. Somehow I found my way to Amy Cross’s novella Tenderling. It’s about a family–parents and an eight-year-old daughter named Cally–that moves into a new house. Cally immediately senses that something besides her family is present, and she doesn’t believe it’s friendly. Gradually her family seems to unravel as first her mother, and then her father, fall under the Tenderling’s spell.

It’s a simple tale told well. The details are appropriately icky and bloody, and of course we get to watch the parents gradually go mad. I like that they go mad in different ways. The psychiatric ward that makes an appearance is overly stereotypical, but in general the characters in here are good, even if Cally is obvious as the star and hopeful hero. At least, this being a horror novel, you can’t be entirely sure what end will befall her.

The characters were fun. The pace and tension built up beautifully; just remember this is a novella, not a full-length novel, so the pace and details move faster than you might otherwise expect. I loved the ending, although I won’t say what direction it went in. The Tenderling itself becomes more interesting as it goes.

If you want a short, enjoyable horror read, Tenderling makes a good choice!

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Review: “Risen,” M.T. Miller

Pros: Some interesting concepts
Cons: Combat and setting issues
Rating: 2 out of 5

M.T. Miller’s Risen: First Book of the Nameless Chronicle asked more questions than it answered. In it, a man with amnesia climbs out of his grave and kills several people who seem to be after him. While he doesn’t remember the details of who he is or what his life is, like, he has all the basic world knowledge intact. A beggar with no hands, Horace, ends up helping our main character and dubs him “Nameless.” Mutilated gang members, redneck cannibals, and nuns with mirrorshades seem to be the main denizens of this world.

 

The book hints at the world having fallen apart 15 years ago, but stays away from detailing which sort of apocalypse it was (assuming I didn’t miss it). I know this sounds picky, but the world and how it works in a post-apocalypse are hugely dependent on what happened. Some events (nukes, plague, etc.) wipe out large portions of the population. Plagues can cause people to draw back into small groups, not wanting to meet anyone who might be infected. Some events attack infrastructure, leaving us without water, sewer, and electricity. Other events can attack food production, distribution, or supply. Destruction of governmental or economic prosperity could result in some unusual people taking over the government of part or all of a state or country. The military might take over, or it might be just as devastated as the rest of the world. These are the details that define post-apocalyptic worlds and the dangers therein.

Speaking of electricity, Nameless retains basic knowledge through his amnesia and seems to understand pretty much everything except… electricity?! He called it sorcery. That doesn’t mesh with the rest of his knowledge.

Dialogue staggers between stilted, stereotypical, awkward, and weird. It gets worse when the author tries to write in dialect for some groups–in particular the highly-stereotyped back woods cannibals. It was kind of excruciating to read that part. Also, one of the women in the group raped Nameless at gunpoint–more than once–and his main reaction is to think of it as “[a] rough night-time romp”, even though he very clearly did not want her to do what she was doing. And when she does something to help him escape, he thinks about how much he owes her. Sorry, but you don’t get a pass on the consequences of rape just by switching the genders up or hand-waving away a ‘rough romp’.

The combat in particular slowed things down. In fiction combat is almost always used to increase the tension and pacing of a story. Not in this book. There is an odd truism regarding combat in fiction: if you try to detail too much it has the inobvious consequences of slowing the pace and confusing the reader. Think of it this way: in horror, you often leave some of the horrifics to the readers’ imagination. People fill the blanks in with what scares them most. In our combat example, consider that the more you detail your combat, the more it will push aside readers’ imaginations in favor of excruciating detail. But the truth is, this can backfire. Your audience fills in blanks as they go, and then suddenly you’re filling those blanks with something else (‘wait, I thought it was the other arm that got ripped off… now I’m confused’). Take advantage of audience imagination and pick out unnecessary details. Overly detailed combats also tend to slow things down, making it a really bad thing to use in spots where you want audience tension. Ultimately I found the combat to be boring, stiff, and entirely too detailed.

The book gives us a tease of what might be going on with Nameless and then ends, presumably to pick up in book two. It was a very abrupt end.

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Review: “The Day of the Dragonking,” Edward B. Irving

Pros: Interesting system of magic
Cons: Confusing and sometimes stilted
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Edward B. Irving’s Day of the Dragonking: The Last American Wizard has no dragons in it. Sorry to drop that on you. Wikipedia covers the term as the Dragon King Theory but the gist of it seems to be the same. Steve Rowan is the only one to hear and see the crash of a plane. Apparently it was a huge use of magic attempting to rip open a rift that would pour more magic into the world. It’s sort of like a switch–anyone who already had powers no longer has them, and now those with real power (physically, mentally, temporally) develop magical abilities tied to tarot cards. Steve (the Fool, of course) and Ace Morningstar (his new bodyguard, also the Ace of Swords) have to save the world with the help of a magical smart phone, a sentient computer, and a few other allies. There’s a reason why this is categorized as satire.

 

Withholding information from the audience is usually an attempt at wowing them later, but it doesn’t always work out. It’s fragile. It relies on an audience who’s willing to stick around to find out what’s really going on, and it requires that the information be enough to provoke that wow realization upon release. The longer you wait to reveal what’s really going on, the more likely readers are to feel that the revelation wasn’t large enough to merit that buildup. I felt the buildup undermined the reader’s ability to make sense out of what’s going on, and not for good reason. The author is very coy for a while and it just got a bit frustrating. I had the damndest time piecing together what was going on at first, and didn’t get on board until maybe 10% of the way through the book.

I admit, I loved Ace’s fight scenes. She’s a great badass. The author did a pretty good job of making the people who are connected with tarot cards read like their archetypes, while allowing the major characters room to grow from that base.

I guess for a while it didn’t really read like a satire to me–there are a lot of books out there that have a hyperbolic style without satirical expectations. I did enjoy Steve’s wisecracks, though. They read very well as the kind of overly-jokey style used by people who are terrified and are trying desperately to dismiss that terror. Some of the writing, particularly toward the start, is a bit stiff and stilted.

Anyway, there’s plenty of stuff going on. Sphinxes, aliens, ghosts, prophets, mutated mythical creatures, sentient AIs, and a genuinely smart phone. Lots of action. Steve learning to pull on his powers. Ace cutting up the bad guys. Cats and dogs, living together–sorry, got carried away there. Not my favorite book, but could be a decent read if you’re in the right mindset.

 

Book provided free by publisher for review

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Non-Review: “Lot 150,” Billie Shoemate

In horror, it’s important to establish the atmosphere right away. Instead there’s an author’s note that takes up literally the first 3% of the book. When you have to include in your story a line like “a lot of this is going to make sense very soon,” you’re begging the audience to hang in there because you’re afraid they’ll walk away. That isn’t a good sign. The author goes off into winding asides on anything and everything, particularly people. He drops it in the weirdest places, like part-way through a paragraph that’s about something only semi-related.

There’s another telling quote: “If you hop on the web and do a search on this place”–then the main character recites a bunch of information that sounds like a Wikipedia entry. It’s completely uninteresting and, well, weird. I don’t want my horror fiction to read like a Wikipedia entry. Then, after suffering from an extended bout of verbal diarrhea, the main character suddenly gets coy with his secrets.

There are some bizarre word usages in here (“Crystal still felt swooned by him”; “girls of mixed gender”–I think he meant to say mixed race, but in this book it’s hard to be sure). We get into dangerous territory as Matt insists his only luck with the girls comes from his car and his money, then immediately a female friend thinks about all the things she loves about him, and how amazing he is.

There’s a group of four people here who are getting back together after… uh, I couldn’t really tell you. It seems they’ve been apart for a few years, but were friends in high school maybe? Except that one girl supposedly wouldn’t even give Danny the time of day in school. We seriously need something to straighten out the timeline, because otherwise it feels like there are a lot of contradictory things here.

That’s about where I gave up. Since I couldn’t finish the book I won’t review it on Amazon or Goodreads. I won’t give it a rating. I’m just here to tell you why I didn’t like it, so hopefully you’ll be able to tell whether or not it might interest you.

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Review: “Kill Cycle,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Fascinating concept
Cons: Couldn’t stand Ash’s wife Laura
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Ike Hamill’s Kill Cycle, the town of Harrison is slowly dying. Ash has come back to live there after marrying Laura and having two children, Eppie and Dunny. Some years ago there was a series of killings, and it’s just been proven that the man imprisoned for those murders is innocent. Ash, a journalist, decides to do a piece on how the killings have affected the small town, but ends up investigating the old case. He meets up with a childhood friend named Charlie who seems a little… off. Naturally there’s a new spate of murders, and Ash ends up obsessing over trying to figure out who the killer is.

 

Charlie is meant to be a suspect from the beginning; even Ash seems to understand that. The first third of the book builds up various characters and their relationships; the thriller part of the book largely holds off until after that. I couldn’t stand Laura, Ash’s wife. She’s mean and manipulative, and I wanted her to turn out to be a bad guy. At one point she wakes her husband up from a sound sleep to insist that he tell her about his investigation just because she can’t sleep and she’s bored. She sets passive-aggressive ‘traps’ all over the place that Ash has to carefully manipulate his own way through. I cannot fathom why he has not divorced her yet. Maybe they enjoy their weird manipulation game too much. There are times when Laura makes Ash guess what she means for no reason (that I could find) other than to be an ass.

Ash does some pretty questionable things once he gets obsessed. He got a data entry job at the police station so that he could run his own searches through their system, looking for more information for his case. He’s lucky he didn’t end up in jail over that one. Ash soon goes off the deep end himself, gps-tracking Charlie’s car among other things.

The concept is really neat–how do you know who the killers are around you? What if there’s more of them than you imagined? There are some crazy conspiracies going on in this book, and it definitely hooked me in. I did start losing track of some of the interrelationships between characters, but they were fascinating characters.

The pace picks up considerably toward the end On the whole I quite enjoyed this book.

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Review: “Broken,” Susan Jane Bigelow

Pros: An amazing look at how time changes people; also a neat version of prescience
Cons: What was up with Janeane?
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In Susan Jane Bigelow’s Broken (The Extrahuman Union) (Volume 1) Michael Forward has the ability to see the future when he looks into a person’s face. Unfortunately, the future is always changing based on our actions–and he only sees fragments and flashes. He could see dozens or even hundreds of possibilities for a given person, most of which are near-term matters. And sometimes the possibilities change radically when someone does something surprising that he didn’t foresee. A woman hands Michael a baby before killing herself, and Michael, despite the fact that he’s a young teenager, knows he has to do something about the boy. After all, the possibilities are split: if the folks in charge get their hands on Ian, he’ll become a bloody dictator. If the right people raise him in the right place, he’ll be a champion of peace, able to rally humans and some of the alien races. However, he knows that none of the good things will happen if he can’t find one person: an extrahuman woman who simply goes by the name of Broken. She can be harmed or even killed, but her body always heals again (excruciatingly–she feels every tiny bit of it). Without Broken’s help, he’ll never get Ian to a safe place–but she’d rather drink herself into oblivion.

Meanwhile, the ‘Black Bands’ are a militia controlled by the vicious Reform Party. Sky Ranger, one of the foremost extrahumans, is either playing along with them or fully supports them–either way, that’s a lot of power on their side. Mobs driven by the Black Bands start burning the homes of anyone suspected of being an extrahuman or of collaborating with the political party that’s on the outs. And Michael’s futures that he sees in the mirror all seem to end the same way: with him being killed by a thin man, regardless of whether things go well or poorly with baby Ian.

 

Michael is a wonderful character. His ability has forced him to grow up quickly. Much like Cassandra of legend, people rarely believe that he can see the future. It doesn’t help that any time he looks someone in the face he sees dozens of possibilities spiraling off of them, most of them fragmented and confusing. He does his best to pick the options that work out the best, but sometimes he just has to hold on and hope that something or someone will have an impact he didn’t foresee. Despite his youth he takes on this enormous responsibility. He has no idea how to care for a baby, and Broken would rather drown in alcohol than help. The characters in general in this book are quite good. The Black Bands come across as uniformly evil, but they aren’t the focus of the book. Broken has a lot of depth to her, and a fascinating backstory. Even Monica, who comes along with Michael and Broken when her house is torched by rioters, turns out to be more interesting than she seems at first.

The extrahuman abilities are fascinating, although we only see a sampling of them in this book. My favorite is prescience. It apparently comes in a near-term fine-grained variety that Michael has, as well as a broad, long-term version that takes the greater picture into effect. When these two types of future perception square off, the results are unexpected and intriguing. I particularly liked it when Michael’s visions would change on the fly as particularly dangerous moments arrived.

“The future has millions of possibilities, and I only see a fraction of them.”

I do want to know more about a mysterious character named Janeane who helped our characters in some mysterious ways. Since we know so little of her, some of her help came across as a small deus ex machina.

I loved this book, and shed a few tears over it. I would like to read more stories in this setting.

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