31 August 2015

Books: Hollow City By Ransom Riggs (2014)

The world of the "peculiars” is a persecuted subset of children and adults who have sideshow-style abilities and abnormalities. Introduced in Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, readers learn of them through Jacob Portman, who discovers the tales his grandfather told of him of strange folks who are live in some form of arrested development, living in a “loop” that is September 3, 1940 over and over again, was far from mere children stories. 

Now, with his grandfather dead and Jacob, having “lived” with the peculiars for a few months (and has discovered he may actually be one himself), joins them in their fight against those who would see them destroyed.

Hollow City picks up just after the cliffhanger ending of the first book, Jacob and his nine friends (including Miss Peregrine, their protector, stuck in bid form) are adrift on water, struggling to find land on which to put more miles between them and their pursuers, the blank-eyed wights and hollowgasts. The fellowships goal is to find the one ymbrynes, Miss Wren, who can transform Miss Peregrine back into human form. But they’re stuck in 1940, and that means becoming part of the events of World War II, which means dodging bombs, debris and just ordinary folks trying to help them. 

With this second volume, Ransom Riggs allows the characters to grow and become more human and not just an assembly of their various abilities. Love blooms for Jacob and affection for the survival of others brings new dimensions all. And I like that the allegory aspect of novel, with children fleeing their London homes as they did in during the bombings of that city by Hitler’s Nazi’s –and then there is the whole parable of the monsters that pursue the children being much like the stromtroopers of that era, with their love of cruelty and gruesome torture.

And while many might draw parallels to Harry Potter, I say so what. It’s an excellent book, and while it is fantasy, Riggs clearly realizes that you must always have reality slipping in between the cracks. Because reality is a very scary thing at times.

17 August 2015

Books: Time Salvager by Wesley Chu (2015)

After three “urban” style fantasy slash science fiction novels that made up his Tao series, Wesely Chu gives us a science fiction novel about the future with time travel elements in Time Salvager.

And while Chu is very good at world building, there is a sense that this book covers too of the same tropes in science fiction we've seen so many times before.
Much like The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (and many recent novels depicting Earths future) our planet of the 26th Century is a mess, as Earth is dying, having been devastated by war, plague, and corporate tyranny. The planets and moons of our solar system is where many live now, and humans have encountered aliens. ChronoCom is a company that uses chronmen –essentially convicted criminals who pay off their debt to society by traveling back in time to recover resources and financial treasures from the past. If they survive long enough –too much time travel can kill you- you are set free. James Griffin-Mars is one such chronman. 

There are rules, of course. Every trip back must coincide with an end event, sort of like going back and “stealing” things that would’ve been destroyed anyways -so you can’t change history another words. And you definitely, most assuredly, cannot bring someone from the past into the future. But a trip to 2097 changes everything for James. There he meets Elise Kim, a scientist working on a scientific base that is about to be destroyed. While it’s destruction proved to be the catalyst for Earth’s dystopian fall, no one in the 26th Century is actually sure how and why this place blew up. But in a brief moment of humanity (or that old trope of falling in love at first sight), James brings Elise into his world of mid-26th Century. And while the media and his bosses are astounded at James breaking the number one law of time travel, this one action sets up a chain of events that puts the chronman and Elise on the run. For someone is willing to go to great strides to get Elise back. And it’s not because she holds the livability of Earth’s future in her hands. Okay, maybe just that.

While I love time travel stories and love Chu’s world building skills and his sense of humor, with Time Salvager (a start of new series it appears) I quickly realized that the book has major problems, not only with paradoxes that time travel incontrovertibly creates, but with the sense of déjà vu –we’ve seen this all before. What we get is a bunch of cobbled together set pieces that time travel and science fiction dystopian stories have a tendency to do these days, which is trying to out ape Philip K. Dicks Blade Runner type future, along with trips back to Nazi Germany (why the Nazi's?), descriptions of world events like the Big Brother Era, or the Artificial Intelligence Era (hello, Skynet) that all lead to Earth’s end. Chu also borrows a bit of themes from The Expanse series as well, with the Valta folks and their cartoon like villain Kuo. While I liked James, there was never a moment where I thought his desire to protect Elise did not have shades of creepiness to them. And Elise, whom I suspect was designed as kick-ass heroine, comes off less three dimensional than I would’ve liked. There were times I felt she was nothing more a fanboys wet dream. Meh.

Then, as the book unwinds, we discover all the lies of time travel (which is given its magical candy-like description) and the One Huge Time Travel Paradox that goes unexplained (perhaps in another book?).

I have to admit, it was a struggle to get through the book. Yes, his future is a bit unsettling. But we’ve seen it all before. I mean, if you’re going to write a tale that has been done a thousand times, at least add something new to it. Time Salvager just isn’t that.

01 August 2015

Books: MagicNet By John DeChancie (1994)

 Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I was reading a lot of fantasy novels. All were serious and literate and all seemed to want to outdo Tolkien. So as I got bored with some of those titles and authors, I found a subgenre of fantasy –humorist parodies. Of course parodies have always been around –National Lampoon is famous for their Lord of the Rings parody- but I generally ignored them until I discovered John DeChancie’s Castle Perilous series. Here was a light fantasy novel that was imbued with a lot of humor. Essentially, I found them a good cleansing read after some other big and bold and dramatic fantasy involving dragons, castles, wizards and all the other usual suspects that come with the genre.

I stopped reading the Castle Perilous (along with a lot of others, which some I regret) books long before book 8 in that series was released. I don’t know why, though. I guess I was reading other stuff and I felt they no longer fit whatever criteria I had back then? Again, I don’t know. But I would see those Perilous books at used bookstores over the years, and try to remember where I stopped. But alas, to this day, I can’t recall. I don’t think I ever read his Skyway series either, but that’s another thing I can’t be sure of. Of course those were more science fiction than fantasy, so that may have been the reason. 

But a few months ago, I found DeChancie on Facebook, liked his page and began seeing his prolific posts (much like David Gerrold, both these authors –and many others- have found a new audience in social media). There he talked about publishing another Perilous novel (last one was released in 1994) and other things. It got me to thinking, maybe with the new ninth novel, I should go back and re-read the other books (even though I don’t do this as a habit, re-reading books) again. But in the last 25 years, I had trimmed a lot of books out of my collection (a lot was tossed when I left the Bay Area in 1992 to return to Chicago. I made a huge mistake then). So much like I’ve been doing since Terry Pratchett passed (buying his books for the first time), I’ve been on the hunt for the previous Perilous books. But, of course, they’re only available used. Which is fine with me (an attitude that has changed since Borders closed in 2011 and finances became tough), but I’ve gotten the first six books locally and hope to find the last two when I’m up in Portland while making the Jay Bell novel Something Like Summer into a movie. 

I also recently came across Dr. Dimension (written with David Bischoff) which I had read, but bought anyways and MagicNet, a book of his I had not read.

MagicNet is a sort of Dark Fantasy tale overlaid with some science fiction, as its plot uses (early) computer communication and sorcery. Essentially with computers hacked into a magical realm (sort of alternate universe, but not quite), magic spells become easier and more powerful. And what person does not want more power when they have access to it? But it begins with a phone call to Schuyler King from a programming friend Grant Barrington. King, like most of DeChancie’s hero’s, has a smart mouth. But he’s happy. That is until the phone call from Grant who warns him that he’ll be getting a mysterious package from him, one that holds great secrets and power; one that someone on MagicNet will kill for. 

Rushing to his friends’ house, Skye discovers Grant dead and the monster that killed him –a real monster by the way- is still at the scene of the crime. After barely escaping with his life, Skye opens that package and discovers it contains software that when installed onto a computer, it conjures up Grant's ghost, who wants him to confront Merlin Jones, sorcerer who is scheming to consolidate his growing power over MagicNet that could bring the end of the world.

As with his Castle Perilous novels, there is a lighthearted approach to the tone of the book, making me feel I was reading a fluffier version of Tim Power’s, whose career is based on fantasy books set in the real world. The sarcastic humor helps the sometimes absurd plotting, and the ending is rather too neat, but I still found the book enjoyable.