THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE by John Scalzi is yet another semi-humorous space opera novel by the man who did a magnificent parody of STARSHIP TROOPERS with his OLD MAN'S WAR series. This one seems to be a vague parody of the ideas behind DUNE except instead of feuding noble houses of quiet dignity or perversity, we have a bunch of spoiled idiots. It has a lot of Buffy-esque quips and fun going on and is a work with both highs as well as lows.
The premise of the series is Earth has been forgotten by a space-dwelling humanity who has settled thousands of worlds using a hyperspace-esque dimension called the Flow. Peace is maintained by the fact all planets are independent on one another, creating the on-the-nose titled Interdependency that is ruled by a holy Emperox (pronounced "Empero"). Unfortunately, the Flow is about to collapse and every single human not living on a viable world is going to die.
Despite this grim premise, the book is absolutely hilarious with the three main characters pathologically unable to take any of their situations seriously. Much of the humor in the book is how they're always snarking at one another. None of them seem especially panicked by the imminent end of humanity and might genuinely just be too selfish to care. Which makes them not at all sympathetic and hurts the pacing of the book a bit as we can only take events as seriously as the heroes (which is to say, not at all).
I can't say I disliked any of the characters either with Kiva being easily my favorite of them. She's a bisexual noblewoman and starship captain who is oversexed, underambitious, and totally the worst person qualified to be the Emperox's biggest ally for saving humanity. Her putting down a mutiny in the start of the book is far from her most entertaining scene (which usually involves seducing one of the cast) but it shows she does know her job. Her mouth is foul, her behavior vulgar, and there's not a single page which would not be improved by her being present.
The closest thing the book has to a "serious" protagonist is Empress Cardenia, who is the illegitimate daughter of the former Emperor. It's through her we discover the various politics and historical details which are the building blocks of the Interdependency and why humanity is probably doomed. Honestly, even she fails to show much emotion about either the end of everything or the discovery (which is not a spoiler) her empire was built on a scam designed to keep her family rich for millennium.
I confess, I'm more than a bit uncomfortable with the fact the Interdependency created a fake religion as part of said scam but I suppose I should be outraged--just more than I suspect the book expected for a bunch of "lovable" rogues. It's just another of the issues where there's something awful done which our characters have a subdued reaction to. This pushes the book a bit over the line from comedy to farce.
John Scalzi does a great job setting up an interesting science fiction problem for our heroes, which is the most valuable resource which all of their civilization depends on is about to go away. The only solution for humanity to survive is to return to a non-space faring civilization by moving as much of humanity to a Earth-like planet as possible. It's a logistical nightmare made worse by the fact it's a one-way trip due to the Flow already collapsing.
The book kind of works at odds to itself, though. Again, billions of people are going to die no matter what happens and humanity as a species is going to lose space travel. This is too dark a subject matter for casual flippancy and it's not the kind of story which really needs a "villain" like the story gives us. The villains have to be idiots to not put aside their ambitions for as long as it takes to guarantee humanity to survive (which is something done in Dawn Chapman's THE SECRET KING to great effect). Given they're portrayed as geniuses, that also warps the narrative.
Overall, I found the book entertaining and will read the sequel. I just more feel this book is Chicken McNuggets rather than a well-prepared steak. It's quite good while you're eating it but doesn't stand up afterward.
THE LAST WISH by Andrzej Sapkowski is a short story collection featuring the adventures of witch hunter (a.k.a Witcher) Geralt of Rivia. It is the beginning of a series of one more short story collection and several novels which became the basis for the much better known video game series. Indeed, the video games were written as "fix fic" fanfic which attempted to provide the series with a different ending. For those only familiar with the video games, it should be noted this is the beginning of the series and where most of the characters found in them originated.
The primary draw of the books is Geralt himself, who remains one of the better written protagonists of fantasy I've read over the years. He is a cold-blooded but surprisingly decent mutant created by a secretive order of killers called the Witchers. Long ago, they were necessary to protect the human race from monsters but they've mostly been killed off and the immortal mutants no longer have a purpose in life.
"The Voice of Reason" is the framing device of Geralt having been injured (in the second story) but is recovering in a Temple of Melitele. The head priestess Nenneke makes him recount several of his adventures. It's not a bad framing device but could have been left behind without losing anything.
"The Witcher" introduces Geralt as a Man with No Name-esque badass who is hated on sight. However, the King of Temeria has his incestuous daughter has been cursed to become a monster. Geralt knows the only way the curse can be broken is if he can capture it and stay beside it until morning. It is a heavily action-based story and extremely entertaining.
"A Grain of Truth" is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast where the Prince actually was a monster before his curse but has had his disposition improved by it. We also discover Beauty isn't the best sort of person for it either. Geralt is surprisingly pleasant to this Beast as well, despite the man's many many crimes.
"The Lesser Evil" is another fractured fairy tale with Geralt falling in love with Snow White the Bandit. She has seven dwarves and they murder people for money. They also murder people because Snow White is wanted for her part in a prophecy which may be, even in a world of magic, complete nonsense. I think this is easily my favorite of the stories in the novel.
"A Question of Price" is the origin of Ciri, the deuteragonist of the Witcher Saga, though she's not yet born by the end of the story. Basically, Geralt is called in as part of a complicated marriage compact which has already completely gone to hell by the time he arrives. We also meet Pavata, an impressive character who is able to stand toe-to-toe with Geralt. The fact Geralt isn't trying to be anything but respectful just makes it all the funnier.
"The Edge of the World" is my least favorite of the books as it involves Geralt and his friend Dandelion getting captured by some elves with too high of an opinion of themselves. The peasants are shown to be complete idiots too.
"The Last Wish" is the titular story of the collection and extremely entertaining. It introduces Yennefer, Geralt's love interest as well as partner, who is one of the better written female characters in fantasy. The fact she's someone who utterly steamrolls Geralt as well as those around him only to get back plenty in return makes her a constant source of amusement.
In short, this is a great bunch of fantasy stories even if I was a bit nonplussed by their fractured fairy-tale nature. They do, however, have an incredible main character as well as a well-developed supporting cast and mythology. I recommend fans of the game and fantasy fans in general all check out this work because it's one of the better buys you'll probably get out of a translated work.
Michael R. Fletcher remains one of the most underrated authors of fantasy today and I am continually impressed by his amazing achievements in terms of making stories which are both rich, well-characterized, and pardon my French but fucked up. He is one of the voices of independent grimdark and we are all the better for his work. Interestingly, my favorite of his works isn't dark fantasy but something much more modern in the stylized hyper-violent GHOSTS OF TOMORROW. It is a cyberpunk shoot-em-up crime thriller with a samurai cowboy cyborg, a sentient tank, and an autistic girl goddess A.I.
The books premise is the future is now dependent on Scans. Scans are a process where a human being's consciousness is copied from their organic brains but, in the process, said brain is destroyed. Rather than result in countless humans wanting immortality, though it appeals to some, it's created a trade in copied humans necessary to keep the hyper-technological future running. Scans are used for assassin-robots, running massive businesses, and more with there never being enough Scans to go around. The solution is at once both believable and horrific with cartels forming to supply the need with children bought or stolen from their parents.
This is mostly a metaphor for human trafficking in the real world with the demand having created a monstrous need which plenty of people will do their best to fulfill as long as its profitable. The fact our villains are the scum of the Earth doesn't keep them from being humanized. Their evil is a function of their being human rather than a divergence from it. The boss of the cartels, for instance, treats his Scan child-soldiers with warmth as well as affection despite the fact they're all people he's murdered as well as would send to their deaths again.
The heroes are also, in proper grimdark fashion, just this side of psychotic themselves as they can't see the horrors they've witnessed without being affected themselves. Griffin, the protagonist, loses a bit of his soul when his attempt to make a bust "properly" gets a bunch of children executed so their kidnappers can get away clean. He then becomes the kind of cowboy cop which exists in movies willing to do whatever it takes from torture or murder to stop the cartels--and really, who can blame him. His companion, Nadia, a reporter finds herself also affected as it's clear the horror she wants to expose is at the base of the society she lives in.
I'm actually really fond of the child-characters in this book as well, which I never thought I would say about any of them in fiction. 88 is a girl who desperately wants to find her mother but may not even have ever had one. Archaeidae is a cyborg assassin who only a person who was raised by ultra-violent video games could take seriously--except for the fact he really is a man with a body count in three to four figures that is all but unstoppable yet possesses a child's ethics. The most fascinating character for me, though is Abdul who is a soldier who had the chance to "survive" by being scanned and now copes with phantom everything syndrome.
It's a violent book but the violence is stylized and overthetop so you get the sense of both how dangerous this new world has become while enjoying it from a reader's persective. It also gives a sense of just how ruthless every party is becoming in order to combat each other. While it's not a metaphor for anything, the story has applicability for discussing things like the War on Drugs as well as War on Terror. It also can simply be appreciated as a science fiction story.
This book reads like a big budget sci-fi action movie and is one of the most entertaining reads I've had in 2017. The fact some of the elements which I loved about it turned up in Metal Gear: Revengeance just goes to show you that geniuses think alike. I actually hope Michael R. Fletcher does a sequel to this novel but I can't really see how he'd improve on an already self-contained masterpiece. It has the same psychedelic crazy appeal of Snow Crash or Neuromancer.
A GATHERING OF RAVENS is a novel set in the Bernard Cornwell-esque world of Vikings, Christians, and the conflict between their faiths. The big difference here is the supernatural is explicitly real in Scott Oden's world where all of Norse Mythology is true but so is Celtic and Christian. The White Christ is conquering the world and his symbol repels the magic of the Old Gods even as they fight with their own followers over mass conversions. It is a violent, dark, cynical, and thoroughly fascinating novel I recommend to all fans of true grimdark.
THE FIFTH EMPIRE OF MAN is the sequel to Rob J. Hayes WHERE LOYALTIES LIE and they are some of the few fantasy pirate novels on the market today. Unlike the Pirates of the Carribean movies, the Best Laid Plans series is a hard R series with murder, mayhem, cussing, and the kind of behavior you'd expect from a collection of pirates. It's grimdark fiction and that's something I like a great deal, especially as George R.R. Martin doesn't seem to be finishing his books anytime soon and I hate what they did to the Iron Islands in the television show.
The Easytown series by Brian Parker is one of the most underrated cyberpunk series presently in production. Cyberpunk hit its heyday in the late 80s/early 90s with William Gibson popularizing the genre with Neuromancer before the Matrix sequels effectively killed it. Actually, I have another theory that technology, the internet, black hat hackers, corporate control, government surveillance, and tranhumanism made the subject no longer science fiction but just an accurate description of 21st century life.
I've already reviewed the first volume of this series and I stated my disappointment the majority of volume one was work by Frank Miller the artist versus Frank Miller the writer. While there were some classic issues in volume one like the introduction of Elektra and the Kingpin's transition from being a Spiderman villain to a Daredevil one, it didn't have the real heart of what I was looking for. That changes with volume two, which contains not only the introduction of the Hand but the classic Elektra and Matt Murdock arcs.
I'm a huge fan of the Carol Danvers incarnation of Ms. Marvel and really need to catch myself up to what she's been doing since becoming Captain Marvel. Then again, given it apparently involves leading the fascist side of "Civil War II" I might be better off just sticking with her legacy character. I refer, of course, to Kamala Khan the Pakistani American erstwhile heroine who decides she's going to call herself Ms. Marvel since Carol Danvers isn't using the name.
Frank Miller's Daredevil is awesome. I say this as someone who thinks Frank Miller, himself, is completely insane and has lost a lot of artistic credibility with his later works. Nevertheless, looking back, I can't trash talk the guy too much because he effectively created my childhood. Not only did he create Elektra, put the Kingpin up against Daredevil, and invent the Hand but he's also responsible for the fact all of these characters were ripped off for the creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No, seriously, they were created as a parody of Frank Miller's Daredevil run and it's kind of a shame he never got any of that sweet-sweet turtle money.
As such, I feel compelled to do a review of the three book collection of Frank Miller's seminal Daredevil run which I encourage people to pick up on Kindle or in physical form. I, initially, didn't think I needed to do a review on the subject because everyone knows Frank Miller's Daredevil is awesome. Theoretically. I also, much to my annoyance, found out the people who decided to create this compilation of novels engaged in false advertising. Hence why I'm giving the first volume 2 out of 5 stars.
Basically, the first volume of this book is NOT Frank Miller's Daredevil. There's not really a way around that statement. The first two-thirds of this book have Frank Miller as the ARTIST rather than the writer. The comics here are written by Marv Wolfman, Bill Mantlo, Roger McKenzie, and David Michelinie. Most of these guys are perfectly fine writers and Marv Wolfman's Daredevil is basically Nightwing (or Nightwing is basically Daredevil) but it's not what the book should be about.
The first two thirds of the book include a story where Spiderman and Daredevil team up to fight the head of the Maggia (the fiction mafia in the Marvel Universe because, I kid you not, they were afraid of offending the actual New York City mobs that transported comics in the Sixties until Nineties). Notable, this version of the mafia includes garishly dressed goons engaged in acts of terrorism to TAKE OVER THE WORLD.
The book also has Matt Murdock dumping the Black Widow who was his long-time girlfriend for a neurotic woman named Heather. The writers couldn't have imagined Natasha Romanova would have eventually become the fantasy girlfriend of an entire generation of boys thanks to the Avengers and Scarlet Johansen but even then, this should have been recognized as a bad decision. It has Matt Murdock facing a super-strong nutjob who thinks he's a Roman gladiator. Finally, it includes Matt Murdock fighting Bullseye, which I actually have nothing against.
As a "before and after" portrayal of Daredevil, this actually works as an accidental example of what was wrong with the comic before Frank Miller took over. Basically, Daredevil didn't really have much of a defined personality and effectively came off as a second-rate Spiderman. Which, ironically, is part of the reason why the 2003 Daredevil movie failed since they ditched the gritty treatment of the movie to capitalize on Sam Raimi's success.
The final third of the book, however, is gold and is almost enough to give the collection three stars by itself. The introduction of Elektra Natchios, one of my all time favorite comic book characters, and the story about how the Kingpin of Crime returned to power after retiring are both extremely well done. There's also a Bullseye story which involves him suffering a brain tumor and the moral issue of whether or not it's better to let someone like him die.
One thing I like about Frank Miller's Daredevil is, even during these first few issues, he is not actually that good at his job. Matt's actions in trying to save Elektra's father are what, arguably, gets the latter killed at the hands of the police. He also prioritizes getting the Kingpin's blackmail files over saving the mafia boss' wife, which results in her "death" (comic book deaths never stick) and causes Wilson Fisk to return to a life of crime. Matt Murdock under Miller is already an antihero but thinks he's a pure good guy.
In conclusion, this is probably a book to get so you have the complete set if you want to get the entire run in hardback but I can't say it's worth the money on its own. There are some extremely good and important comics with some extremely bad ones.
THE STATEMENT OF ANDREW DORAN is a Indiana Jones versus H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos novel with the titular character standing in for Doctor Jones. Andrew Doran is an adventurer archaeologist who was fired from Miskatonic University for suggesting they should maybe not openly share the supernatural books that have the power to destroy the world. Also, the fact he's a smug git. Unfortunately, Andrew Doran is needed because the Nazis have stolen the Necronomicon and plan to use its power to win the war.