Frontiers of the Imperium by Jan Kotouc

Frontiers of the Imperium by Jan Kotouc

Frontiers of the Imperium by Jan Kotouc

This was a fun one, with the kind of writing I like to read, and interesting characters. The novel felt off in the later parts, like it needed to end and had not. That is not actually a problem, when the novel ends, it all makes sense.

What does make this tougher is the need to be spoiler-free, in a book of spoilers. Seriously. Lots of the good stuff to talk about is all spoiler – based.

But not yet! Frontiers of the Imperium is the first in the Central Imperium series, and the first series by Czech writer Jan Kotouč for the English-speaking market.

Frontiers has to not only tell it’s own story, but also fill in tons of world-building and context. Which Jan handles well. Enough information is provided in the text to make sure that you are not lost too badly, with a nice afterward to fill in the blanks.

Broadly, this is the story of…um…damn. Oh, here we go! This is the story of Daniel Hankerson, nephew of the Emperor, and his service aboard a shiny new communications ship, the Hermes. As they head out on a ‘show the flag’ mission, in the opposite direction of renewed fighting with the alien Ralgar.

And that is the end of the stuff that isn’t in the spoiler family. Really. So much of this book is spoiler-level content, it is hard to talk about without giving plot away.

So let’s talk about the craft of the book. There is a lot to like here. The interpersonal relationships are well written, the characters don’t blend together, and the overall feel is one of a polished author. Which makes sense, as Jan is not new to the game. Where we stumble a bit is in the realm of modern cues to far-future things. Justin Bieber is not likely to be remembered 500 years in the future, for example. Nor the much more memorable Christopher Lee. That did not throw me out of the story, it is just an odd choice for a character without a deep historical interest.

There is a lot of need to be willing to take things on faith – and that gets a little heavy at times. Again, not a real issue in my read of the book, your mileage may vary.

All in all, this is a good book with a lot of promise for the remainder of the series. I look forward to them!

The Heartreader’s Secret

The Heartreader’s Secret

The Heartreader's SecretIt is always nice to get a book to review, and it comes with the first two in the series. It is nicer when those books are so wonderfully clever, unique, and well written that you don’t feel the weight of obligation over reading them.

The Heartreader’s Secret (book three of the Faraday Files), and the first two in the series (The Deathsniffer’s AssistantThe Timeseer’s Gambit) are just such books. What surprised me the most was how much I liked them, considering how much I dislike the main POV character. It’s a conundrum indeed.

The basic premise is this: in an alternate universe England, magic is the source of…well…everything. It powers lights, vehicles, etc., it is used to cool homes, and heat them, it is basically everything we use technology for, and then some (noise shields to keep the street noise from houses, for example). In this world, some years back, a fairly vulgar display of power, the Floating Castle (a neigh-literal name), failed in a disastrous manner, killing thousands. Including Christopher Buckley’s parents. Now, broke and desperate, he takes employment as an assistant to Olivia Faraday, consulting detective. In this world, detectives are often Truthsniffers – their powers allow them to detect lies and falsehoods – even things like staged crime scenes. Olivia, however, styles herself as a Deathsniffer, one who solves murders specifically. Christopher is a Wordweaver, which seems to be a magically powered manner of transcription. Honestly, this is one power I don’t quite get, as it seems like a complex way to avoid just jotting down notes.

In this third installment, we follow Olivia and Chris to her home in the country, looking into what may be the disappearance of their friend Emilia Banks. What is revealed is a plot of murder, conspiracy, betrayal, and reconciliation as Christopher has to deal with his feelings for the titular Timeseer of book two, his sisters governess Rachel, and his love of being the biggest jerk in the world. As a lover of backstory, I was most happy to see a lot of it here. In fact, this is a majorly revelatory entry in the series, as we get to see some of what, exactly, is up with Chris, why Olivia hates home, the William issue, and more about the world that is slowly beginning to unravel around them all.

The story here is actually really involved – there are a lot of plates spinning all at once, and McIntyre is absolutely perfect at keeping everything moving in the same direction, and not only being resolved, but resolved in an internally-consistent and personally satisfactory manner.

Except Buckley. Hot mess is not even close to how I would describe him. In places, i actively rooted for his death or removal by other means (coma, insanity, Thanos, kidnapping, running away, the Demogorgon, whatever). I really dislike him, in almost every possible way. He is spiteful, hateful, sexist, racist, petty beyond reason, bigoted (which is presented as being a product of the time, but in three books of immersion that should have shown the way, he had not changed), self-loathing, and vindictive. His treatment of almost literally everyone he considers beneath him (and that is almost everyone who isn’t Olivia, his sister, Olivia’s mother, Maris, and the police as a whole) is rude, dismissive, and…well, if I want this review on Amazon, I can’t say what I want to…but it ends in -hole. Chris is the weakest point of the book (and series), and while I was ok with it in the first book, as it made sense, by this point it is really rather annoying.

That said, I get why it is how it is – Chris is the negative lens through which the characters are seen in order to make a statement about the sexism and bigotry of the times – and of ours. It makes sense, and maybe is effective to others, but it falls flat here. I particularly dislike his treatment of William. If things hadn’t happened as they did in Timeseer’s Gambit, then it wouldn’t be so annoying. But they did. I understand (without being able to experience) that there is a cohort in the homosexual world that are Chris – gay (bi?), and unable/willing to accept it in themselves, and thus self-loathing. But that is something I cannot and will not experience, and so while I accept that it is real (I have known men who experienced this very thing), I dislike the portrayal. I think that is a result of the men I have worked with who were in a similarly self-inflicted position; gay but unable or unwilling to accept it, and thus conflicted. Understanding is not acceptance, and my fervent hope is that he is better in the eagerly awaited book four.

Reading other reviewers, they seem to find Chris a large part of their enjoyment of the series. And kudos to them all for seeing something I cannot. I love this despite him. All that above didn’t lower the score – not in the least. And that says something to me about the power of this book. It tells a compelling story in a society that is, and is not, from our own history. And that needs some comment too. I like steampunk well enough, but this is some next-level work here. The simple change I welcomed most was that this wasn’t ‘England with magic and mad science’, it was a different world altogether. None of the names were the same, the history felt different, the rest of the world was different. This is great! While not-London is fine, taking the leap to make it wholly different was welcome and contributed to the whole series in many different ways. Not the least of which was having the world be all the author’s own, so things can be where they need to be for the plot. Not inconveniently distant or close. That simple change was one of my favorite atmospheric notes in the series as a whole.

Lastly, this is classified as LGBT fiction, and many of the characters are homosexual or leaning that way, it is important that at no time does this feel wedged in, forced, or the sole point of the book. The plot and story come first, second, third, etc., and the sexuality is there as an aspect of that plot. For any who think that it can’t be done, this is precisely how you do it! Swap William for Wendy, and literally nothing needs to change except pronouns. That makes the perfect approach in my personal view, and is damn near worth a star just for that.

The Heartreader’s Secret is one of the best books I have come across in a long time. The whole Faraday Files series is that good. I cannot recommend this enough. It needs to be on your personal shortlist, and read ASAP.

Book Review: Creature of the Night

Book Review: Creature of the Night

Creature of the Night cover Well. This is a quick read, at least.

This is like reviewing two books. Book one had some good commentary on the absurd obsession with ‘reality’ TV, especially the reductive contest type. Book two forgot all that, and instead went for stupid levels of absurdity, possibly trying to be funny, possibly trying to hold a ‘Clockwork Orange’ type mirror to it all. Neither was great, but the first was better than the second.

Creature of the Night is the story of a near-future world where humans discovered vampires, declared war, and lost. Vampires occupy some of the position that celebrities do now, only moreso. The events all occur during a brief (week?) TV show that is a contest to turn one contestant into a new vampire. This is intended as a send-up of the ‘American idol’ type show, but with an edge of insanity and depravity. Which I get.

But then the author should have committed. There is nothing in the ‘off camera’ scenes to suggest that this is anything more than posturing on the character’s end, except for all the bits about how it isn’t. Every one of them is totally into the contest, even when it becomes cruel and brutal (which is pretty much immediately).  But there is no follow-through into the ‘off camera’ spaces. And that is where we find the biggest miss. The on-camera insanity is one thing – and worthy of parody. But, the off-camera is where the story is. Where there can be drama, pathos, development, and so on. There is some, just not enough.

Where I get off the bus is the brutality. Make no mistake, I am not one of those ‘i downloaded megakillerultraviolence 2, and it has violence…1 star’ types. I don’t mind violence, and even enjoy it in the correct context. This isn’t it. There is something horribly off-putting about the whole thing. I have been trying to put a finger on it for a bit now, and all i can think is it feels wrong. Not the actions, per se, but the way it is applied. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t feel forced, just…off. Almost, but not quite, like it was there, and an editor wanted it punched up, so the author had a ‘see how you like THAT’ moment.

I also was not on board with the ending – not the results, but the methods. I get that it was needed to complete the parody, but again, personal taste says ‘no’.

There is nothing really wrong with the book – no glaring style or craft issues. it isn’t, objectively, bad in any way. I just found the parts I disliked too much to ignore in the grand scheme of things.


Book Review: Down To Oath

Book Review: Down To Oath

Down To Oath coverThere is an art to writing fiction. The characters need to be likable, accessible, hopefully relatable. The plot needs to flow, and avoid the pitfalls and traps of running your character into dead ends, jumping around, and so on. Sometimes, all that happens, and you still get a book that is impossibly hard to review.

Down to Oath is that book.

While my personal satisfaction was low, the reality is that there is little objectively wrong with the book itself.

The characters are well drawn. They are believable, exactly trope-ish enough to be familiar, while retaining a uniqueness that is appreciated. The towns are decent enough – the titular Oath is the best-developed and most satisfying to me, with shades of the nameless village of The Lottery, and even shades of The Village from The Prisoner. Not so much in the surreal weirdness, but in the characterizations of the residents. I liked what I saw happening, as it fit nicely into a lot of my preferred boxes and concepts.

Then the book continues.

So this is where this stops being a product satisfaction review, and becomes a book review.

As Down To Oath progresses, the characters are developed into less monotone versions of themselves, and this growth is not without conflict. The conflict is well composed, and the evolution of the characters is both well written and well paced – there is very little downtime, and what is there is needed to continue development, but without the pressure of the plot elements. The climax hits in the right place, with the needed tension, and a predictable, if not unwelcome, ending. A sequel is set up, but not made a requirement, which is nice. Far too many books these days are written to require a sequel, and that gets tiresome after a time.

And this is all well and good, but there is one ‘review’ problem, and one ‘satisfaction’ problem. The review problem is that so much of the book has the flavor of a spoiler that writing about it in any but the most vague language feels like I am giving something away. The other town names, not so much, but the other characters, the ones beyond Oath? Yes, that seems to be a spoiler. The reason for it all…spoiler. The resolution…obviously a spoiler, but even hinting at it is giving things away. And that is just frustrating.

The satisfaction issue is that when we find out the why of it all, it is the least-good version of the why. Tyrolin Puxty does nod to other reasons – all of which I would have preferred – but sticks to her guns, and delivers. I am not down with that reasoning, however. I feel that it limits the plot, limits the characters, and limits the book itself. All needlessly.

So, my final thoughts here would be that Down to Oath is a well-written, well thought out book, and while aspects were not to taste, this will be quite satisfying ro other readers.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One

Ready Player One softcover coverYes, this is a bit late in the game, and no the movie had nothing to do with this. But I will talk about the trailers after the book. Spoilers below the fold.

Ready Player One is…well, it is a lot of things. It’s good. Let’s lead with that. It’s good.

The basic story – a treasure hunt – is mostly well thought out, with a plausible plot, motivations, and so forth. The characters don’t blend into each other, and are well-written for what they are (more on this later). Ernest Cline misses some opportunities to take the book to a higher level (several, really), and has a bad habit of discarding side characters like a starting level piece of gear. Some aspects of the way the world is constructed could have been better (stacked Winnebagos…shipping containers makes much more sense…and are designed to be stacked), but it is at least consistent. Again, I liked the book. But while it was good, there is real room to improve.

So good, but what it most assuredly is not is great. Not close. Despite the cover blurbs proclaiming it ‘Willy Wonka Meets The Matrix’ or ‘A Grown-Up’s Harry Potter’, it is neither of those either. See, the problem with the whole thing is that it is missing what Willy Wonka, Harry Potter, and even The Matrix presented in job lots.

Hope. (more…)



Disposal coverThis is the third book in the Pop Traveler series by Tara Tyler. Since I had missed the first two, I will cover them a bit first.

In book one, Pop Travel, we meet J L Cooper, widower PI and general dropout from life. He is hired to find out what happened to a man’s wife, and in the course of this investigation, stumbles on a massive conspiracy focused on the transformative technology known as Pop Travel. It’s a kind of instant teleportation from place to place. Advantages include instant travel, popping cures disease and intoxication. Disadvantages include exploding in a shower of glitter. Cooper encounters Geri, an agent assigned to derail his investigation. Or kill him. Either way. We are also introduced to Hasan, known as The Creator, the man who invented popping. Once this is resolved, we move on to Simulation, where illegal cone androids known as simulations are being used to replace people. These replacements are part of a larger plot, and sometimes killing using their faces.

Finally, we get to the last book, Disposal.

Cooper and Geri are back together, and Cooper’s nephew Jimmy is staying the summer while his dad is in the home stretch for the Presidency. Cooper is working with a local officer, who makes Geri feel insecure because of her looks. And there is a new drug about to hit the streets – Butter. Butter addicts the user instantly, and over time creates a dependency that allows the user to become a virtual zombie – fully controlled by the dealer.

So, of course, Jimmy gets caught up in the Butter plot as a means to control his father, who is expected to win the White House in a Reagan-like landslide. Cooper pulls all the strings he can to save Jimmy, recruiting Hasan to help break the grip Butter has on users.

So, this is the end of this series, for now at least. As I read them back-to-back, it is hard to fully separate one from the other. But overall, the stories were good, with a lot of interesting looks at a possible future, without any needless message insertions. Message is there, but it is done right – it is part of the plot, not something wedged in to check a box. My main impression is one of a good detective story, solid enough science (teleportation has its own suite of problems, from that whole ‘it kills you’ thing to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), and good characterizations.  The story is solid, it tells one story, isn’t trying to be too clever for the author’s ability to keep secrets, and tells one story. That last matters to me. Too much these days is trying to tell 2 or more stories, and seldom do we see an author who can pull that off. Not an issue here – each book is one story, contained, with subplots to be sure, but not subplots masquerading as plots. You get a good book, and one that is enjoyable to read.

I did have one real issue with the series, and it is worst in the first book. The near worship of Hasan, who invented pop travel, as The Creator (it’s caps in the book too). I get that something so revolutionary would make him a celebrity, and likely a Steve Jobs on HGH, ‘roids, and literally every other performance enhancing substance ever level of celebrity. But still…it gets to be a lot too much. Hasan is more-or-less charming with his mangling of idiom and metaphor, but the whole Creator thing was a bit much.

And that was really the main complaint of the whole series. Cooper and Geri were well done, the various side characters were exactly as detailed as they needed to be, and there weren’t any holes in the plot I could see. This was a perfectly enjoyable read, and a good journey from point to point.