Caroline Cryonic


I run Adarna SF: a speculative fiction blog for the ebook revolution. We review ebooks in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Our focus is on ebooks from independent publishers and self-published authors. Stop by to find your next neat ebook read!

Where to find Caroline Cryonic online


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Smashwords book reviews by Caroline Cryonic

  • Tales of the Red Panda: The Crime Cabal on April 13, 2011

    Life during the Depression ain’t easy, but the last toughs of Toronto’s criminal underground find themselves cornered when the boss got busted by those damn masked heroes. The terrific twosome of Toronto, the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel, have been picking off the gangs one by one, and their survivors had enough. “The Red Panda’s days are numbered!” The remaining mobsters ally with supervillains and plan the greatest caper to defeat the Red Panda. While our courageous masked heroes have the powers of hypnotism, gliding membranes, and a dozen martial arts on their side–can they defend Toronto against the combined forces of the criminal underground, Kid Chaos’ explosives, and the Professor’s army of zombies? Can our heroes match the strength of… The Crime Cabal? The Crime Cabal is a joy to read, and it reverberates with the energy of the Red Panda Adventures podcast series. The Squirrel is sassy and charming as ever, supporting characters such as Constable Parker are fleshed out, and snapshots into the lives of Toronto’s denizens provide colour to a thrilling old-school pulp adventure. The work especially shines in the fight scenes, which are fluid, fun, and fantastic–in all senses of the word. Taylor has been writing scripts for Red Panda Adventures podcasts since 2005 in the style of 1930s and 1940s radio programs like The Shadow. The Crime Cabal is the first volume of three in the Tales of the Red Panda series. This book is well written, but Taylor’s heavy experience in writing scripts relative to writing prose shows in a few of the scenes. Some of the dialogue doesn’t quite capture that snappy, bantering rhythm that the characters should be having, and some of the emotions don’t carry through. The narration switches between points of view in the same scene, which is handled smoothly particularly with the villains, but is a distraction in others–especially in interactions between the two protagonists. I would prefer some scenes changed to third-person limited. Considering that the Red Panda Adventures’ native medium is the radio show podcast, I recommend listening to a few episodes of the podcast first (they’re free) to get acquainted with the characters and the universe. If you find yourself listening to three, four, and more episodes… then the next step is to read this book and get deeper into the Pandaverse. Overall, The Crime Cabal is great. It captures an effortless wit and playfulness in the spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s not only a homage, but a realization of the pulp tradition–weaving together a fantastic universe of masked heroes that modern readers can immerse themselves in, both young and old alike. To my knowledge, the Red Panda series is the best in new pulp, and is at the forefront of pulp renewal. I’ll be reading the rest of the series and hope that Taylor continues to be a prolific prose writer, scriptwriter, actor, director, podcaster, et al. in the years to come… because I’ll be needin’ my Panda fix. [For more reviews of fantastic and speculative literature, feel free to head over my blog. The link's in my profile :)]
  • The Eternity Brigade on May 15, 2011

    The Eternity Brigade was first published in 1980. Major revisions have been made and the final edition was published in 2010. I’ve never read any earlier editions so I’m approaching this work as an entirely new 2010 release. The concept of using cryogenics to make soldiers nearly immortal is intriguing. The story is told from the point of view of Hawker, an American soldier who is trapped in the army’s resurrection technology, as he is forced to become a pawn in increasingly bizarre wars that he has no connection to. In short, Hawker is stuck in a nightmare. Through the centuries, he becomes even more alienated from society to the point that all of future civilization is incomprehensible to him. It’s a haunting future to imagine and it really takes man’s inhumanity to man to the next level. On top of the amazing concept, it’s fast-paced. It grabbed me very quickly and never let go of my interest. The narrative doesn’t mess around with the details and moves the plot smoothly through the centuries and galaxies. Although the reader doesn’t learn much about Hawker, he’s still a very sympathetic character. It’s easy to see how anyone could be in Hawker’s position, where control of one’s life can be swept way by forces like larger personalities, groupthink, and the industrial-military complex. It makes Hawker’s experiences even more frightening. While those elements are exceptionally strong, I found the other characters and the world-building lacking. The characters feel like types rather than real individuals, and a few of them had unclear motivations. I couldn’t pin down Hawker’s original time. He makes some references to iPods which would set his time in 2001 and later. His fellow revived men find it surprising that China isn’t completely communist anymore, but China was already economically liberal enough to join the WTO in 2001. The Eternity Brigade moves through centuries with the changing forms of warfare and civilization. I appreciate the time-place disorientation that Hawker experiences with each incarnation, and the idea that future society can only become more strange and incomprehensible. But the future setting alongside the sombre tone often feels anachronistic. The future societies are reminiscent of the “exotic” alien societies that Captain Kirk from the original Star Trek interacted with. The aliens have easily identifiable binary genders and the humans live in bubble-domes. I just feel the tropes used for the setting are a bit quaint. The details that I found unconvincing are found in less than a tenth of the text, but they are distributed throughout the book so they occasionally distracted me from the main storyline. The Eternity Brigade is a thrilling read with a great central concept. I enjoyed it, but I can’t say it’s my best read of the year. I still guarantee that this book is a provocative page-turner that’s easily devoured in one sitting. It’s worth reading to explore its engaging ideas about the human cost of war and its vision of dystopia, but don’t expect too much from the characters or the world-building. Note: a free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Lovers and Beloveds: An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom Book One on May 19, 2011

    “If the women were so important, why aren’t they in the histories?” -Prince Temmin If George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series captures the gritty realism of medieval history, Lovers and Beloveds reveals the intimate and personal dynamics of power in aristocracies. It weaves together a rich multi-layered story that explores how sex and power shape history and individual destiny—sharing a perspective that’s beyond the “men, swords, and thrones” (capital H) history that’s often seen in fantasy. It follows Temmin coming of age as he gains a fuller understanding of the responsibilities that he holds with his privilege. He learns about intimacy and dominance from court servants, religious figures, and an ancestor’s curse. What is coercion, trust, and consent? How would he rule differently from previous rulers? The prose is lush and beautiful, which perfectly reflects the aristocratic steampunk world that Temmin lives in. The setting is fascinating and could be described as a fusion of Victorian England with Classical Greece. The narrative draws you in quickly and immerses you in life in the royal court. The characters of various classes are fleshed out with interactions that are full of wit and colour. Since sex is an important theme in the work, it’s heavy on the erotica, but it’s woven well into the plot and setting that none of it feels excessive. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have plenty of fetish fuel to go around. Since most of the conflict revolves around Temmin’s personal development, it does follow a spoiled royal heir for over 400 pages, which understandably may not be for everyone. But I found him to be so well characterized and endearing that none of that mattered to me. I find it refreshing to see characters that are such a clear product of their upbringing and personal history. Regarding the world-building, there are some words mentioned that’s only explained in a glossary, but it’s a minor nitpick that wouldn’t affect your enjoyment of this book. This is an intelligent, insightful, and beautiful fantasy novel. I highly recommend Lovers and Beloveds. The term “fantasy erotica” can’t describe the depth of this work. Even if you don’t think this subgenre is for you, I urge you to read the sample anyway and see if it draws you in. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Note: a free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Kat And Mouse, Guns For Hire on June 07, 2011

    Kat is the dark-haired Amazon in black biker leathers with a pair of .45-caliber hand cannons named Bonnie and Clyde. Her partner, Mouse, is the dame in the trenchcoat wielding the Japanese short swords. This book features 14 episodes of their pulp action adventures from the Kat and Mouse webserial. The writing style is fast, fun, and minimalist with a hardboiled aesthetic. It’s a thrill ride as the sassy duo shoot and slice their way through mooks in Bay City. The fight scenes are fantastic; Senires doesn’t get bogged down with explaining the cyberpunk weaponry as he leaves the best stuff to the imagination: [Twenty meters before the onramp, the aerodyne dropped out of the sky right in front of us, a three-meter long, gray metal brick suspended in mid-air by four ducted vectorthrust engine pods. Its chin-mounted 30mm chaingun swiveled toward the Shelby’s windshield. “Holy f--k!”] [The muscle went for their guns. A subvocalized command flooded my body with adrenaline stimulators and the world slid into slo-mo.] The characters are lively and interesting. They’re based off familiar types (slice-happy sidekick, support guy with Cockney accent, broken-English Russian barkeep), but they’re instantly likeable and their interactions give off Joss Whedon vibes. The cast has a dynamic that works well, and I can see myself continuing to read the series for them. While the writing and the characters are excellent, the world of Bay City and the episodic stories themselves need either more meat or flavour. Bay City is a standard big city with turf wars. It has a cyberpunk aesthetic as far as weapons and tech goes, but it isn’t different from a gang-ridden city of today. The gangs and joyboys are cute, but they’re run-of-the-mill Italians mafiosos and punks in biker leathers. There are punks in red leathers, but that’s as colorful as it gets. I would love for Senires to make Bay City and its groups more unique and theatrical. Some repeated information could be removed from the ebook edition. The episodes are standalones, but I found it distracting to be reintroduced to the cast half a dozen times. I wish there’s more meat to the episodic stories themselves. I love reading frivolous pulp stories, but the ones here didn’t grab me. I’m happy to read such stories if they’re compensated with extra sensationalism, but Kat and Mouse doesn’t push the envelope far enough. Kat and Mouse is an entertaining read and I can see myself following their future adventures. I could easily give it more stars if it has a bit more sensationalism or substance in the story and world-setting department. There’s a lot of great stuff here so I’m following Senires to see where he takes the series. While this review is critical in some respects, it’s also a review from a potential fan in waiting. I recommend this book if you’re looking for some light pulp action fun with a cyberpunk/hardboiled aesthetic. It’s an enjoyable read as long as you don’t expect much else. Note: a free review copy was provided by the author.
  • The Sable City on June 12, 2011

    The Sable City is a fun and refreshing D&D epic fantasy romp set in the 14th century. There’s muskets and magic, and dwarves and samurai. Blood gets spilt along the way due to encounters with nefarious demon hordes and such, but a wry sense of humour is maintained throughout the book. The book grabbed my attention from the first page and I found it hard to put down, which is a bit of a problem considering its epic word count of 183,000. Hence, be warned. It first starts as a quest for two, then a diverse cast of characters are introduced; their paths get tangled and it builds up to a fun dungeon-crawl and boss fight. I’d like to talk about some of the twists and surprises, but I won’t spoil the fun for you. While the characters don’t deviate from the common fantasy types (kleptomaniac rogue, gruff dwarf, snarky mage, antisocial melee guy, female healer, … even the novel samurai isn’t characterized beyond stoic), they’re very likeable, lively, and sympathetic. I cared about them as real individuals and desired to see their stories through. There aren’t any faux action or TSTL heroines here as Tilda and the other women are skilled and resourceful. There’s plenty of moxie and quipping to go around. McNally develops a rich and detailed world full of history. It pays greater attention to resource wars, changing boundaries, and taxes than other stories with this fantasy setting. It’s a world where an accursed city of doom opens up… and the first thing that happens is that hobgoblins levy taxes on any treasure carried out. It’s dungeons and business. One of The Sable City’s greatest strengths is its energetic tone and sense of humour. The characters have their troubles and despair, so while it has its poignant moments, it never gets too serious for its own good. It plays with some fantasy tropes while keeping the reader immersed in the story, and it strikes this balance masterfully. The book’s weakness lies in the “building” of world-building. The first fifth is difficult to read because of the massive infodumping about the world. It made me feel like I was reading a game world wiki than a novel, but once you’re past the infodumping, it’s smooth sailing and turns out to be a really fun read. I think it could still benefit from more editing to fix excessive exposition and some awkward early scenes–but the way it is now, it’s still a great 4 star book. There are a few anachronistic phrases (like “teamster”) and moments where I felt like I was playing an RPG instead of reading a novel. Its preoccupation with equipment and armour can only be described as obsessive, a mage attempts to cast Know History, and the party has a penchant for climbing up towers full of mooks just because the towers are there. But the quirks work well with the tone and story, so I just find them charming. Due to the beginning 20% of ridiculous infodumping, I advice readers approach to that section with some blinders on if you’re overwhelmed by the details. Once you’re past that, it greatly improves and reveals itself as a rewarding and fun dungeons & dragons romp. I highly recommend The Sable City if you’re looking for an entertaining epic fantasy adventure. Note: a free review copy was provided by the author.
  • The Emperor's Edge on July 04, 2011

    The Emperor’s Edge is a charming and exhilarating fantasy adventure set in an era of steam. It follows Amaranthe, a lawful good-type police officer, who ends up being charged for crimes against the throne. She finds herself working with unlikely allies, including an amoral assassin, as they try to stop nefarious plots to kill the emperor, with a lot of adventure, mystery, and humour. It’s fast-paced, action-packed, and it grabbed me right from the first page. It keeps a playful tone with a lot of banter and witty commentary on each page. With the writing style’s wit and genre-savvy moments, I’ll venture out on a limb and compare it to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Buroker also does the world-building so smoothly that the reader doesn’t notice that they’ve absorbed essence of the city of “Stumps” with each newspaper headline of bear attacks on Wharf Street and each strange beheaded statue. The world is really interesting. It’s high fantasy, yet it takes place in an empire where magic is outlawed and is only used by foreign subversives or urban gangs. Amaranthe working as an enforcer is quite the exception, as women have dominated the eras of commerce, but haven’t been accepted in other sectors of this militaristic empire. It’s filled with lively interactions between denizens of various social classes, and it makes the setting very distinctive. Amaranthe is a likeable and memorable protagonist. She has some combat ability, but her skill lies in persuading others to work with her and coming up with creative ways to solve problems. There’s quite a bit of chasing, escaping, and combat, and it’s all refreshingly fun to read because of the original methods she employs. She uses a lot of odd props and the environment to her advantage, and comes up with a zany but practical plan to save the emperor. The other characters are also lively individuals with a lot of depth, and I liked every member of their misfit crew. What makes this book especially strong is the conflict between Amaranthe’s goals and the amoral approaches to attaining them. While there are a few evil guys, everyone else is just a normal person doing their jobs. She feels sympathy for many of the mooks that they have to take down, because she used to be an enforcer just like them. I liked how she didn’t take the decision to harm others lightly, and the choices she made were consistent with her values. There were a few eyebrow-raising moments. I felt like that a few humourous quips were taken too far, as they didn’t fit the tone of the scene. I was also a bit skeptical of the extent of Amaranthe’s ability to charm others. Somehow for me, it wasn’t established that Amaranthe was that charming until midway through the story. But these moments only happen a couple of times, so these are minor nitpicks that won’t affect your enjoyment of this book. The Emperor’s Edge is a fantastic novel, and it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. If you’re looking for a fantasy adventure, you really can’t go wrong with this one. It’s highly recommended and I’m definitely reading the sequel. Note: a free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Hungry For You on Aug. 22, 2011

    (Cross-posted from the Frida Fantastic book blog) Hungry For You is a horror short story collection that explores the links between desire and decay through tales of zombie romance. The POV character is either a zombie, or someone who is attracted to one—so while readers may be experiencing zombie fatigue, A. M. Harte injects new life into the material. There isn’t just one type of zombie in this book. It takes a more general approach as it covers some people who are not traditional zombies, but exhibit the same bodily experiences of addiction and deterioration. All the characters are sympathetic individuals, no matter how many fingernails and ears fall off, and no matter what they hunger for. I really enjoyed this collection. It’s engaging and heart-wrenching all throughout, and I finished it in one sitting. The simultaneous themes of passion and destruction are unique, resulting in some chilling prose that straddle the darkness between the two: [“It hurts,” she moaned, clutching at her side where I’d sunk my teeth into one of the love handles she so hated. The memory made my gums tingle. I took a step closer, could feel the growing hunger, the excitement, the urgency to eat and eat before her flesh went off.] The stories that stood out for me were the title story “Hungry for You”, and “Dead Man’s Rose”—which are respectively about a female police sergeant with an unusual zombie victim, and a young wife dealing with an abusive relationship. About the former, it takes some serious skill to write zombies as attractive beings while maintaining them as rotting corpses. It’s infinitely twisted and awesome. Although the subject matter in “Dead Man’s Rose” isn’t new (young wife has creepy husband; young wife is stuck in a house and creepy things happen), it’s written with such a touching sadness that it affected me emotionally like no similar story has. I was hoping that the stories would add to a greater overarching theme, but they don’t. They could be read in any order and it wouldn’t affect your experience of this collection. While every word is absorbing, the stories feel more like samplers of bigger tales, so some ideas could be explored further. Some of the characters could be fleshed out more in terms of personality and background—while they’re all in different states of rotting and non-rotting, there were some that I could only remember as hetereosexual and in their 20’s or early 30’s. Due to the similarity of subject matter and not-as-defined characters, there are a few stories that aren’t as memorable. But really, these are just my thoughts on how a great 4-star anthology could become an even better 5-star book. Hungry For You is a captivating read. Although I felt like some of the stories could be expanded, every single one was emotionally moving, and I suspect that I’ll be re-reading several. If you’re interested in highly original zombie stories, or exploring the dark side of passion, I recommend this book. Reading the sample will give you a good idea if these stories will tug at your heartstrings. They certainly tugged mine, and I’m very interested in reading more books by this author. Note: A free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Polly!: a comic novel of hope and blasphemy on Aug. 29, 2011

    (Cross-posted from the Frida Fantastic book blog) [“That’s the way the universe works. Not random at all. The universe is passive-aggressively hostile.” - Polly (she who may or may not be God)] Polly! is a quirky contemporary fantasy with a hopeful message. It follows Herodotus, a middle-aged man down on his luck, as he undergoes a process of rediscovery upon meeting the enigmatic Polly. The story is comparable to the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, but it speaks to non-religious skeptics and has a weirdness that makes it more interesting. It’s never clear what Polly is, but she fights entropy, gives some serious tough love, and has plenty of thoughts on dealing with a passive-aggressively hostile universe. The reader follows Herod’s journey from sorrow to renewed hope and wonder. Goldin’s prose is really enjoyable, it moves quickly with just enough description to make a scene memorable. The pacing is smooth, there’s never a dull moment, and it’s always engaging and unpredictable. There’s some offbeat humour which helps lighten the mood, and all of it feels natural to the story and Herod’s point of view. While there’s only two major characters, they’re done excellently: Herod is a sympathetic everyman and Polly is vibrant force to be reckoned with. Another aspect I liked was the timelessness of the setting and the themes–it could be set any time in the next thirty years and it would still feel contemporary. The worst part of the book has nothing to do with its contents—it’s the cover. The cover is confusing to potential readers, and Polly doesn’t even look like that. But hey, don’t judge a book by its cover. Polly has a French maid that is funny but a bit too over the top, and there’s a line or two or dialogue that rubbed me the wrong way, but those are insignificant nitpicks. I advice checking out the longer sample at Smashwords to see if you like Herod and Polly and its agnostic themes. The book is filled with interactions between these two characters getting all Socratic-method style discussing life, the universe, and everything else. Polly pulls out all the stops on her criticism of organized religion, so if that’s not up your alley, well yeah, you’d think it’s blasphemous. It’s a quirky book that’s not going to appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed the ride and it made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Note: A free review copy was provided by the author.
  • The Silence of Medair (Medair Part 1) on Sep. 05, 2011

    (Cross-posted from the Frida Fantastic book blog) A lot of fantasy involves a hero on a fetch quest to save the kingdom from invading hordes. But what if the hero failed? This is exactly the beginning of this book. The central premise is amazing and makes this book stand out from its contemporaries. Epic fantasy as a subgenre seems to like its epic wars and the threat of invasion, but it doesn’t concern itself much with a logical consequence of war—colonialism. Medair fetches the Horn of Farak, but she dooms her kingdom when she falls asleep in an enchanted labyrinth. She wakes up five hundred years later to find that her homeland is no longer hers. The Ibisian invaders now rule the lands, and Medair’s disappearance and the collapse of her kingdom has become the stuff of legend. Her kingdom’s people mostly have been wiped out, or they’re of mixed blood and identify themselves as Ibisians. Medair is on the wrong side of history, and has to come to terms with her homeland as a colonized space. What more is that she still has the powerful artefact that is capable of nothing less than genocide. While she hides her true identity, different factions pull her into escalating wars. She has to decide whether to side with her invaders, and what justice really means in this new context. So yes, plenty of engaging ideas there. The narrative is introspective and filled with flashbacks, but it works so well because Medair is such a complex heroine. She is deeply loyal to her dead kingdom, feels disgust towards the Ibisians, but is also a very compassionate human being. The rest of the cast is interesting even if mysterious, and the rich dialogue is filled with carefully chosen words and courtly intrigue. Every moment changes her relationship with the Ibisians, creating an intense build up to her final decision which could alter the fate of her homeland. Höst’s intricate prose and world-building is a joy to sink into. I wanted to race through the pages because I couldn’t wait to see how the story unfolds, but I forced myself savour each word. I stopped to re-read scenes several times because they were so emotionally powerful and I wanted to hold on to the moment. But it’s quite possible that I sympathized with Medair so much that I also felt her sense of dread. I love how this story brings a historical understanding of culture and politics to an epic fantasy setting. It’s very refreshing compared to some of the epic fantasy I’ve read over the years where different factions are racially essentialized into a couple of simplistic traits, are forever foes, and are unchanging for millennia. But I thought this novel approaches race as more of a social construct–a fluid category. Medair notes the subtle differences in pigmentation and body type, which may be may be significant for neighbouring peoples turned colonizer and colonized, but perhaps not that significant to someone outside of those countries. Different ethnicities are described with certain attributes, but the attributes are ultimately cultural. As Medair notices, culture mixes and changes over time, and that changes how she relates to the Ibisians. It’s also interesting how Medair becomes a political symbol. An extremist group calls themselves Medarists, and their goal is to overthrow Ibisian power and put any person with Ibisian blood into slavery. They’re also waiting for Medair’s fabled return and consequent call to arms. I liked the disconnect between the politics-using-the-person-as-a-symbol, and the actual politics of the person herself. The only other story I recall seeing this point of view is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Day Before the Revolution”, but Medair isn’t an aging revolutionary–she wants nothing to do with the movement named after her. I liked the inclusion of this group, and I thought they added more depth to the politics of this world. It took a few chapters for it to really grab me, and I wanted more from the plot because I felt like it was just the beginning of something bigger. Some of the formal titles of the nobility are hard to remember because they’re similar and all start with the letter K, but these are very minor complaints. This book may be too introspective and brooding for some, but the earnest emotional core, original ideas, and beautiful prose definitely makes it re-read material for me. The Silence of Medair is an intelligent, absorbing, and poignant fantasy novel. Readers should take note of this work, especially if you’re interested in an epic fantasy or a memorable heroine. It’s an excellent read and it’s highly recommended. Note: A free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Genesis Earth on Sep. 12, 2011

    (Cross-posted from the Frida Fantastic book blog) Genesis Earth is a space opera coming of age story. Michael and Terra are two young adults raised on Heinlein space station, and they’re charged with an important mission that could usher in a new era of space exploration. While they face the unknown, an innocent romance blooms between the two. This book has a wonderful start. The conflict and paranoia between the two characters while they’re isolated in space is brilliantly done. I liked how they aren’t hyper-competent protagonists, but very flawed young people who happen to be on the most important mission for mankind. They take different approaches towards their obligations to the mission: while Terra considers herself free from expectations, Michael nearly collapses from the weight of his responsibilities. Their characterization and interactions are a strength of this book. Vasicek’s prose and exposition are excellent. The pacing is slow, but it works in the story’s favour because it sets the mood and it makes the build-up fairly intense. The scene where the protagonists thaw from cryogenic sleep is particularly memorable. It’s heart-pounding and it really shows how fragile humans are out in the cold void of space. While the first half is great, the book changes focus to something I couldn’t care much about. The big questions developed early on were meaty stuff: where should humanity go and what is the future of mankind? But instead of fully exploring those questions, the protagonist decides to shelve them and focus on carving out a life for himself. The personal conflict of Michael deciding between what’s best for the mission and for his own life is actually good, and it’s not a conflict I often see in sci-fi. The problem is that Michael himself is uninteresting compared to the big questions that the story decides to ignore. I was willing to put up with Michael to see what he’d discover, but when he decides to focus on himself and his budding relationship with Terra, it’s hard to stifle the yawns. They’re the space equivalents of two young adults that have never left their small town: they’re boring. Do I care if they’d settle down and find a happily ever after? Not really. And it’s hard to take their romance seriously when there’s half a dozen unused Chekov’s guns littering the landscape. I was also incredulous at Michael’s priorities. He finds a terrifying answer to the “future of mankind” question, and instead of pursuing it and possibly changing humanity’s fate, he decides to stick to the mission. I understand that he’s a strict-rule-abiding kind of guy, but I’m sure the folks back on Heinlein station would rather have him investigate that lead. I was surprised that Terra didn’t consider that a priority either. To be blunt, I thought that their subsequent accomplishments amounted to rearranging the furniture while the house burned down. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it bothered me that they didn’t recognize the weight of their decision. Genesis Earth explores big sci-fi questions, but they eventually fade into the background as the puppy love between the two protagonists takes centre stage. Vasicek is a competent prose writer, he establishes the space setting really well, and he has good ideas. I’d like to see him tackle a concept-driven science fiction story. If you’re looking for a sci-fi adventure or one that thoroughly explores big questions, this isn’t it. But if you just want a coming of age story with a bit of romance set in space, this might be up your alley. Note: A free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Death of a Kingdom on Sep. 19, 2011

    (Cross-posted from the Adarna SF blog) I really enjoyed The Sable City, and I’m pleased to say that Death of a Kingdom is even better. The Norothian Cycle series continues to be a fun throwback to the adventuring-party type of fantasy, filled with lively characters and playful trope subversion. While it retains some of the D&D flavour, there’s no dungeon crawling in this book. It turns its focus on the raging battles across the continent and takes a more serious tone. The gang’s all here—Tilda the kleptomaniac rogue, Phin the snarky mage, Shikashe the stoic samurai, et al.—with the exception of John Deskata who’s off in the Miilarkan Islands trying to keep it from imploding. There are new characters introduced too who are just as delightful as the rest of them. It’s a joy to read McNally’s prose and it is definitely smoother compared to his debut. It continues to be heavy on the exposition, but while some of it used to detract from the action, now it enhances it. It’s especially notable with the fight scenes: it has memorable choreography while written with a snappy rhythm. There’s even a Completely Unnecessary Sword Duel; while it does nothing for the plot, it’s awesome and the author likely had as much fun writing it as I had reading it. I still had some trouble with the world-building. There are a lot of names mentioned: persons and places, current and historical—and it’s a bit difficult to keep track of all the factions concerning the worlds of men, gods, and dragons. I’m no stranger to substantial world-building, I had a very clear vision of the factions in Frank Herbert’s Dune and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, but I can’t say the same here. While maybe 30-40% of the details were lost on me, I still understood the general thrust of the conflict. The world itself continues to be captivating and dynamic, and has a sense of depth which perhaps could be attributed to the author’s history background. I really enjoyed getting to know more of the cultures, especially the entrepreneurial Miilarkans. The political developments around Chengdea is intriguing (the region pledges allegiance to a distant empire united by a shared constitution, of course that means war with its not-so-distant former king), and the bird’s-eye view of battle tactics are excellently portrayed and filled with the surprises of the real thing. It’s sprawling world, but it’s well-realized and it makes this series extra special. I noticed a few typos (e.g. “then” instead of “than”), but they occur only a handful of times in this lengthy tome. What I noticed more often was the overuse of hyphens. Using hyphens in compound words can be a stylistic choice, but in my opinion, more than a few were unnecessary. Some words should have been solid compounds, and I don’t think hyphens need to be used if it won’t lead to ambiguity (e.g. “far-too expensive”, no hyphen needed there). But as you see, these are minor nitpicks. Overall, I highly recommend Death of a Kingdom, especially if you’re looking for a fun fantasy adventure with a rich historical world setting, and a bit of a D&D flavour. I wish that the author was more ruthless in stamping out the occasional typo and reining in some of the excessive history backstory exposition, but everything else works so well that I consider this series a gem. Note: A free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Symphony of Blood, A Hank Mondale Supernatural Case on Sep. 26, 2011

    (Cross-posted from the Adarna SF book blog) Hank is a private investigator who has to solve the case of a man-eating monster. I’d peg this at both contemporary fantasy and horror. The fantastical and horror elements come from–well… the man-eating monster. The protagonist is a fairly typical P.I., but Pepper does excellent characterization, so it’s hard not to be charmed by Hank. I really enjoyed the first half of this book. I was hooked right from page one, it’s fast-paced, and the dialogue and the descriptions of the characters are delightful. They’re quirky people: Sandy the kleptomaniac secretary, Joe at the Pool Hall (when he shrugs, his chins line up like a seven layer cake), Mackenzie the moody rich girl who knows more than she’s letting on–and there’s plenty of other personalities. I swear I was chuckling or grinning at something on every third page. The monster itself is original too. Pepper masterfully writes the creature in such a way that the reader has an idea of what it could be like, but not with too much detail that all the mystery is gone. What’s unknown is always more terrifying than what is completely known. The creature is also a surprisingly well-developed character on its own right, and is actually more sympathetic compared to the humans that it gets to know (fairly intimately). I was surprised that a sizable portion of the book is written from the monster’s point of view, and it’s one of the highlights. I’m a sucker for body horror, and I was giddy with delight at the descriptions of the monster devouring people from the inside out. It’s simultaneously fun and disgusting. What makes it unique is that it isn’t focused on “pain” or “terror” which is typically told from the victim’s perspective, but rather from the creature’s POV of “delicious.” It’s joyously merciless. While I liked the monster’s POV, I don’t think those scenes work for the narrative structure. The first half is told from Hank’s perspective as he figures out the details of the case. Then after a major cliffhanger, it changes into the monster’s POV showing how the deaths actually took place. But the problem is that it loses the momentum of the first half of the book. The reader already knows that these people are dead, and it doesn’t reveal a lot of new information. It goes on for too long to the point that after I flipped each page, I kept hoping that it would jump back to the present. But it takes up at least a third of the book, and it eventually felt like a drag. Perhaps the monster’s POV would have been better integrated into the story if it was dealing with present developments and alternated chapters with Hank’s POV. The other issue I had was a plot hole. Considering what Thomas Blake knows about the monster, it doesn’t make sense why he hired Hank. Mr. Blake is an intelligent man, but hiring Hank just doesn’t seem to be in his interest. Mr. Blake has a lot of resources to draw on, so why Hank? This question bothered me as I read on, and that it was all I could think about during the last third of the book. Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t shed any light on Mr. Blake’s motivations, which makes the resolution quite unsatisfying. There are many wonderful things about Symphony of Blood. The premise is fun, and the prose and characterizations are top-notch. You should take a look at this if you like private investigators, body horror, and dark humour. I enjoyed it, but the plot hole and the long monster POV section made for a distracting experience in the final part of the book. Even though this isn’t the most engaging novel I’ve read this year, Pepper is a promising writer, and I’m interested to see what other stories he has to offer. Note: A free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Voice on Nov. 27, 2011

    (Cross-posted from the Adarna SF book blog) Voice is a supernatural horror novel that follows a rock band from obscurity to fame, with bits of gore trailing the way. It’s terrifying, tragic, and freaking amazing. It’s an absorbing and intense read from cover to cover. The musician who makes a pact with the devil at the crossroads is a well-known rock and roll myth, and the horror elements themselves aren’t unique, but Garraty’s delivery is pitch-perfect and will make your hair stand on end. The author masterfully executes the classic “less is more” approach to horror, letting your own paranoia fill in the blanks and scare you sh*tless. What makes it great is that the supernatural horror blends into the setting naturally. The creep with thinning hair at the back of the dive bar could be either a man with unfortunate features or a demon creature out to disembowel you. I was glad that I didn’t read some scenes in public because they made me scream like a crazy person. You know that time when you watched Alien for the first time and didn’t see that chestburster coming? Yeah. That. The everyday tribulations of being a musician are convincing and immerse you into the character’s lives. I loved details like when Case, the lead guitarist, explains to someone that their band wasn’t hard rock like Nickelback but more like the New York Dolls or Motörhead, she’s promptly met with a blank look. Garraty is as much an expert in music as in horror, and has a way of fleshing out details without overburdening the reader with obscure trivia. I could go on and on about why I love this book, but I definitely must praise Voice for the characters. Everyone’s fascinating with great internal conflict, adding layers to the plot. There’s illicit relationships, band drama, and the daily struggle to prove their worth to themselves. Heck, even the minor bit characters are intriguing too, and I wished there was more uncovered about them! The entire line-up is strong, but two characters steal the spotlight. Case is a fantastic heroine, a no-bullsh*t woman in a macho scene. While she walks around in leather pants and knows Krav Maga like nobody’s business, she’s a multidimensional tough dame and not merely a caricature of one. You could call her the spiritual successor to Ellen Ripley. But Johnny’s internal conflict–that’s main star of the book. Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. What do I do with you? Every time I read a chapter in his POV, my heart soared or twisted itself in sympathy. He’s the lead vocalist whose talents are unremarkable compared to the rest of the band, and it’s his hunger to prove himself which leads to the pact with the devil. No matter what the reader thinks of his choices, deep down, you feel that you would same thing. It makes the story even more chilling, and that is the mark of an outstanding horror novel. As Johnny would scream to the audience between his Elvis sneers, “Is it hot enough for you, m*therf*ckers?” Yes, it is m*therf*cking hot. Read it. Note: a free review copy was provided by the author.
  • Voice of the Lost : Medair Part 2 on Feb. 18, 2012

    (Cross-posted from Adarna SF) Voice of the Lost is the perfect sequel to The Silence of Medair. The first book is a political fantasy that’s epic in scope, and Voice continues to develop the themes of colonialism, empire, and sacrifice and a controversial romance is set in motion. Medair chooses to side with the descendants of her invaders while facing an oncoming apocalypse brought on by wild magic. Talk about raising the stakes! I loved this book, and it has the strengths of The Silence of Medair, but with a slightly different focus. It’s still character-driven, but there’s less brooding introspection and more political intrigues. Medair is thrust in the midst of a war and makes tough choices, possibly earning her place as a villain in history. What makes it interesting is how she deals with it, and how she views heroism, sacrifice, and ethics in herself and the colonizers. Medair’s character development is one of the best I’ve seen in the fantasy genre. I must commend the author for how she handles magic in the world-setting. Magic systems are best explained in some books, while in others, it’s best left as a mysterious force of nature–whichever helps the suspension of disbelief. Höst treats it as the latter, and it works. Magic is a messy thing in this world–it merges parallel worlds, triggers a looming apocalypse, and even changes people’s ethnicity–which is a big deal in a historical reality of heated colonizer vs. colonized dynamics. While those are all crazy, its believable because the emotional consequences for the characters are so real, and that’s the key achieving verisimilitude in fantastical literature. I don’t know how the author pulled it off, but she deserves mad props. With sacrifice as a key theme, it mostly reads like a tragedy. Whenever I cheered for the small victories, things became infinitely worse, but none of it came off as melodramatic. I was on the verge of tears in some parts, unable to decide whether it’s best to read on (and feel that screwdriver to the chest) or put the book down (and be unable to think of anything else!). Medair’s internal dialogue sometimes summarizes what just happened and her reaction to it instead of only the latter, and it’s a little redundant. But other than that minor quibble, there’s nothing I’d change about the book. It’s rare to find an epic fantasy that’s ambitious in scope and yet ties the story together succinctly. There’s no filler subplots or unnecessary scenes, it hits hard but ends with a satisfying conclusion. The story is emotionally involving and deals with heavy themes, but it’s worth it. I highly recommend this duology if you’re looking for an epic fantasy that’s character-driven, different, and thought-provoking. Note: A free review copy was provided by the author.