24 February 2016

Books: Morning Star By Pierce Brown (2016)

In Morning Star, the conclusion of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Trilogy, we get another wild tale of war, revenge, politics, duplicitous humans, and more death and destruction than you can shake a leg at.

 “Darrow would have lived in peace, but his enemies brought him war. The Gold overlords demanded his obedience, hanged his wife, and enslaved his people. But Darrow is determined to fight back. Risking everything to transform himself and breach Gold society, Darrow has battled to survive the cutthroat rivalries that breed Society's mightiest warriors, climbed the ranks, and waited patiently to unleash the revolution that will tear the hierarchy apart from within. Finally, the time has come. But the devotion to honor and hunger, for vengeance, runs deep on both sides. Darrow and his comrades-in-arms face powerful enemies without scruple or mercy. Among them are some that Darrow once considered friends. To win, Darrow will need to inspire those shackled in darkness to break their chains, unmake the world their cruel masters have built, and claim a destiny too long denied - and too glorious to surrender.” 

There is a lot at stake here, and the novel runs faster, harder, and more headlong than the previous two novels (mostly because there is a lot of stuff to cover in its 518 pages) combined. There is little time for sitting and talking, which is good…and bad. While the relentless works, it also takes on a sense that while many will pay the price for this war, you know the ending. Brown gives us a few surprises though, and brings forward Servo to give the series the dark, sarcastic humor it has lacked, but the ending was never in doubt. 

While the first person narrative worked for the first two books, here I feel that book could’ve been stronger had we seen other perspectives. Being in Darrow’s head all the time made the book go over so much of the same ground the previous books did. I have no doubt he loved Eo, but it becomes redundant when we cover his guilt feelings for her death and those of his extended family again and again. 

When I read the first book back in 2014, I was curious if the author was going to explain how, some 700 hundred years in the future, we humans became the way these folks did, where a society is based on color codes, where the Roman Empire somehow came again. But either it was not important, or something else, but we never get a glimpse on how this happened, even as Morning Star does make more references to Earth, to the Romans of yesteryear. I mean the works of Homer and Sophocles survived, but apparently Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire did not, which I find curious (I also ruminated on the oddness of Darrow’s name that came up in Red Rising, that the name was unusual, but again, this story thread was dropped).
Unlike James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, which went out of its way to explain space travel, Pierce Brown forgoes all of this, which then leads me to believe this whole series really is a space opera in the vein of Star Wars or Star Trek, with a lot of gory elements borrowed from George R.R. Martin.

This was not, as it may seem, a horrible series. I enjoyed it and look forward to seeing where Pierce Brown goes from here. It’s just I’m not a huge fan of ultra sadistic books, where human life is tossed away like a forgotten toy. I go numb from the horrible ways in which people die, even these fictional characters. That is part of the reason I gave up on Game of Thrones. I grew weary of so much death, and the blurring of the line between moving the story forward and torture porn.

As I said, I’m curious as where Pierce Brown will go from here. A nice hard-core science fiction novel or even a good fantasy novel would be nice. I hate to see him stuck producing just this style of space opera over the next decade. 

But we’ll see.

19 February 2016

Books: Midnight Riot (Rivers of London) By Ben Aaronovitch (2011)

Ben Aaronovitch started his career on TV in the late 1980s, writing for Doctor Who, (Remembrance of the Daleks, which he adapted into a book and Battlefield). He also penned several original Doctor Who novels in Virgin’s New Adventures series back in the 1990s that included Transit, The Also People, and So Vile a Sin. He also spent time writing episodes of the British series Jupiter Moon and a 1990 episode of the long-running medical drama Casualty. 

In 2011, Aaronovitch began a series of urban fantasy novels that added the aspect of also being a police procedural, thus, Midnight Riot is the first volume (though released in England under its original title, Rivers of London). The novel centers on the adventures of Peter Grant, a young officer in the Metropolitan Police force who, after an unexpected encounter with a ghost, is recruited into the small branch of the Met that deals with magic and the supernatural (think The X Files meets Harry Potter meets CSI). Peter Grant, having become the first English apprentice wizard in over seventy years, must immediately deal with two different but ultimately inter-related cases. In one he must find who is possessing ordinary people and turning them into vicious killers, and in the second he must broker a peace between the two warring gods of the River Thames and their respective families.

This series gets off to a promising start, though once again I tend to get confused on the colloquiums and other British slang, which is strange considering my love for the British. And one might need a handy map of London to keep track of all the street names, along with a detailed history of London’s rivers and tributaries. Still, Peter Grant is an interesting hero, one of mixed heritage (which was a great idea) and snappy one-liners, something that is enduring and not as irritating as it could be. Unlike Paul Cornell’s (who also wrote for Doctor Who) similar themed novels London Falling (2013) and Severed Streets (2014), though, Aaronovitch is having fun with the format. He takes his history seriously and seems to know his stuff, but the story is light and not as gruesome (well, less gory) as others in this new sub-genre of fantasy. So the book is witty, imaginative, and often very clever. 

I guess I’ll have to add another series to my every growing list of series books that I seriously need to stop doing.

14 February 2016

Books: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (2013)

For some of us, including me, Alex Woods is us. Of course, the beauty of a novel is that it becomes hyper-reality, but within those sometimes absurd situations, lies a veracity that makes us love this quirky kid in this delightfully funny novel about a British boy growing up in Glastonbury. We meet our narrator Alex as a seventeen year-old when he’s stopped at Dover customs with 113 grams of marijuana and an urn full of ashes on the passenger seat. 

It is here, as he explains to the police, the story that began years earlier. One a lot of people knew about, but one that no knew would end this way. When Alex was ten, he was hit with a meteor. Well the house took the brunt of the force, but Alex was injured in the head. After miraculously surviving that, it isn’t soon after that he has his first epileptic seizure, which forces him to stay home, not got to school for two years, and forced to pass time at his mother’s tarot shop. But the advantage for him is that it enables him read up on everything dealing with astrophysics or neurology. Of course he was considered different before the meteor, and by the time he finally gets back to school at thirteen, he become what every unusually smart kid seems destined to be, a outsider. Or as he puts it: “A pariah is someone who's excluded from mainstream society. And if you know that at twelve years of age, you're probably an inhabitant of Pariah Town." While escaping a trio of bullies, Alex stumbles into the garden of Mr. Peterson, an older ex-pat American. It soon after their relationship grows as Mr. Peterson introduces young Alex to the works of Kurt Vonnegut. This eventually leads Alex to create an obscure book club called "THE SECULAR CHURCH OF KURT VONNEGUT". But it’s during this time that Mr. Peterson is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and after seeing his wife waste away from pancreatic cancer, Isaac Peterson wants to die with dignity. But he’s realized that to do this, to choose when and where he is leave this mortal coil, eventually means Alex and him must come up a plan that could get a teenager in loads of trouble.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is Gavin Extence’s debut novel, and is filled with some wonderful humor, dry as a martini, something that only the British seem really capable of doing successfully. The framing structure of using the works of Kurt Vonnegut is rather a brilliant idea, as seems to encourage the reader (and me) to explore that author’s canon (when Alex meets Mr. Peterson for the first time, it’s shortly after the author passed. Isaacs’s dog is named Kurt, as well).  And the use of first person narrative –a device I find at times difficult- actually works here, as it makes the book a more compelling and accessible read. It is often laugh out loud funny (especially the interactions with his mother and older teen friend Ellie), which helps, especially as the last half of the book deals with a person’s right to die. Extence handles these parts in a very empathic way, and though Alex Woods is young in chronological years, he seems to carry an old soul, one that is quirky, but seems to clearly understand his path. This could be called a life affirming book, even with the moral question of euthanasia, but I rather not hobble that around the books shoulders. It’s an enjoyable read, and while it has a message, the author clearly wants his readers to make their own judgments when it comes to euthanasia, just as Alex Woods does here.

08 February 2016

Books: Moving Target by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry (2015)

Star Wars: Moving Target by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry is the last volume that made up the first part of Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And like the previous two books in this series, the story is framed as flashback. We open prior to the events of the new movie, with General Leia Organa wrestling with her duties to the Resistance and how she must balance those responsibilities with her own personal wishes. Which reminds her of a story from St Olaf…wait, that’s not right.

Well a little bit. This loose trilogy of books has all been about the same thing, how Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie are thrown into leadership roles against their better wishes (except for the princess of course, she’s been fighting the Empire in one way or another since she was a child) and how their desire to end the Imperial rule allows other people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. And it’s apparent, after fighting for thirty plus years, no one thought of recording Leia’s thoughts about what it all means. But now on the eve of her sending Dameron Poe to Jakku, she agrees to begin setting the record straight so to speak, and she unwinds a tale set just before the events of Return of the Jedi.

The mission of this story revolves around Leia taking a small group on a recruiting mission along some outer rim systems that is actually meant to draw imperial attention away from the actual fleet gathering at Sullust to attack the incomplete second Death Star. The group jumps around, setting an electronic bread crumb trail for the Empire to follow, all while Leia wrestles with truth that she is setting up outlier rebels to prevent the Imperial forces from discovering the rebel fleets true location.

The plot is your basic mismatched group heroes with certain abilities that must work together to achieve a goal (it’s Gun on Ice Planet Zero for the original Battlestar Galactica). And like Smuggler’s Run, the interaction between the characters makes this YA title work. We get some good speeches about what the rebels are really fighting for and why some would give up their own lives to achieve the goals of Resistance. 

One the things that really stopped me from reading the original Expanded Universe books after a few years in the 1990s was, as it happens here, that threats the Imperials make on heroes always rang hollow with me. You always knew that if a stormtrooper, or some other Imperial villain pointed a blaster at the head of Leia, Han, Luke, Chewie, or threatened the destruction of C3PO or R2D2 the reader knew they would not die, would not be destroyed. Leia getting captured was an easy trope to do in those books, and happens here again. It’s these things that made me sort of start not wanting to read them (and this includes the Star Trek books as well). I know that the hero always wins, but that’s TV and movies for you. Sometimes, in these series books, I wish a writer would be able to break out of the formula. But even as I write, I know it’s the formula that readers apparently want and are dictated by the publisher. 

There is a lot of good things about these books –mostly the loss of subplots- so even Leia getting captured is not that annoying. I enjoyed them. Now the question is do I go and start reading the handful of other titles in this new Expanded Universe that Disney has created?

07 February 2016

Books: Star Wars: Smuggler's Run By Greg Rucka (2015)

It probably does not matter if I read Star Wars: Smuggler’s Run second, rather than first, and read Star Wars: Weapon of a Jedi first than second, as neither impact each other. But like the Luke Skywalker tale, this Han Solo and Chewbacca story opens with a prologue set just before The Force Awakens. We have a much older Han Solo sitting in a cantina listening to a bunch of smugglers talk about fast ships. Soon, of course, Han must talk to them about the fastest ship in the galaxy, the Millennium Falcon, which then leads into a tale set just after the events of A New Hope

The destruction of the Death Star has put a dent in the Imperial war machine, but the Rebellion has no time to savor its victory. The evil Galactic Empire has recognized the threat the rebels pose, and is now searching the galaxy for any and all information that will lead to the final destruction of the freedom fighters. And Han wants to pay off his debt to Jabba. But before he and Chewie can leave Yavin IV, Leia comes to Han to ask him for another favor: a special-ops crew of Rebels, responsible for safeguarding the secret of the current and next Rebel base, has been discovered and five of six of them killed. She needs him to pick up that agent, Ematt before the Empire gets a hold him. Of course, the planet the rebel is on is in the Outer Rim, a lawless world by the name of Cyrkon. While Han still refuses, it’s Chewie who eventually convinces him that they need to save the young man (a good, well written part, by the way). Meanwhile, Ematt is trying to evade the clutches of Alecia Beck, a Commander in the Imperial Security Bureau. She is ruthless and very competent warrior with a scar and a cybernetic eye to show just how coldblooded she really is. She is also the personification of the brutality of what the Empire truly is: she sees everyone, including those under her, as mere fodder for the advancement of the Imperial fist. After their arrival on Cyrkon, Han and Chewie need to find Ematt, elude Imperial forces and four bounty hunters who’ve come to the planet in search of what will eventually be Jabba’s prize statue.

While the plot is a pretty standard find-the-hunted-man-before-the-villains-do narrative, what makes the book (despite being a Young Adult tale) good is author Greg Rucka’s wonderful, often hilarious relationship between Han and Chewie, as you sort of end up laughing out loud with the back-and-forth dialogue between them. You also kind of end up sort of respecting the villain somewhat as well. She’s very three dimensional here, which is something I like in this new unified canon –everyone seems to be drawn very carefully.

While these books are slim, they are well paced. The elimination of many sub-plots that would’ve filled out a much longer book, helped the keep the story focused, fun and exciting.

Like Weapon of a Jedi, another book in Disney’s Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there is a slim connection to the film, which are the bounty hunters themselves. Han mentions several of them, including the ones who board his freighter in the film. After years of annoying them, is it any reason those dudes took such drastic action against the famous smuggler?