THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS is a book which should be right up my alley with Jim Butcher (one of my favorite authors), a mixed steampunk and fantasy premise, plus lots of pulpy action. For the most part it IS up my alley but it is a work which I think does have quite a few flaws. The premise is so awesome, though, that I want to stick with the series and see Jim Butcher correct them to make it one of my favorite series.
The premise is, far in the future, mankind has colonized another world where the surface is horrifically dangerous but they are able to survive in flying Cloud City-esque "habbles." This technology is powered by crystals and doesn't seem to require much in the way of maintenance as they've forgotten this part of their history. Indeed, they've reverted to a somewhat Neo-Victorian era of technology as well as behavior.
Gwen Lancaster, the spirited daughter of Spire Albion's most powerful family, has decided to join the military despite the somewhat comical attempts by her mother to prevent her from going. Once there, she meets with a lesser noble named Brigit and her talking cat Rowl. The Spire is attacked by an enemy force and soon they find themselves forced to work with a privateer named Grim in order to perform a mission to prevent another, even more dangerous, attack from occurring.
First the good, I really love steampunk adventures and the pseudo-Victorianism on display is fun and engaging. The protagonists are all extremely likable and if sometimes a bit ridiculous, like when Gwen fires her energy gauntlet in the middle of a crowded street to scare off a potential mugger, they're still fun. I would have preferred someone from the lower classes to give their perspective but that is asking a bit much.
The combat, especially the airship battles, is very entertaining and I enjoyed the use of the vertical as well as the horizontal. Jim Butcher effectively makes them starship battles in the skies above the surface and they're very exciting. We don't need much in the way of technical details but each of the encounters is blood pumping and well-done. I really came to like Predator like a in-universe Millennium Falcon and wanted to see its crew succeed.
As for the bad? Well, there's not so much bad as underwhelming. The characters are drawn a bit too broadly and fit more into archetypes than deeply realized characters. Jim also goes for big moments that, as mentioned above, verge on the ridiculous. There's a substitution of "quirky" for character development and that doesn't really help the characters. They're all pretty much heroic good guys from the start so they can't really develop much.
I also think the story is a bit bland in terms of sexiness and romance. Aside from a character having a crush on another and another character being another's ex-wife, there's almost no hint of attraction or love in this book. This is notable because the Dresden Files have some of my favorite femme fatales in fiction and I also liked the romances in the Codex Alera.
In conclusion, this is a very fun book and I enjoyed the audiobook version even more than I did the physical copy. I think it's something I may read again. However, the book's irritating parts are very irritating. Whenever the characters act "wacky" it takes me out of the book and hurts the overall feel. I'd like to see a slightly more serious take on the world and more deep interactions between the characters in the future. I am definitely buying the next volume, however.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of hundreds of books ranging from Star Trek to Leverage to Supernatural. I've read a dozen or so of his books and enjoyed almost all of them. I think my favorite is his I.K.S Gorkon/Klingon Empire series which chronicled the adventures of a crew of Klingons on a four book mission to seek out new life, new civilizations, and kill them. He's a great writer of enjoyable characters, straightforward plots, and having developing events mixed together in fascinating ways.
SCPD which stands for "Super City Police Department" is a novel which is set in an original world where superheroes protect Super City from all manner of horrible monsters. However, this particular city of heroes doesn't have the level of trust and respect which accompanies heroes like the Justice League or Avengers. Instead, they carry a level of burning low-level resentment from the police and local government for hogging the spotlight as well as botching investigations.
The series seems inspired by the series Gotham Central by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka. That series was notable for showing the perspective of Batman from the Special Crimes Unit. SCPD is set in a lighter, softer city like Metropolis. Still, the premise of the book is anything but a light one as it is about a superpowered serial killer run amuck. A killer which the superheroes are completely unable (or unwilling) to do anything about.
The protagonists of the book are likable enough but generally fall into the category of archetypes rather than deeply involved characters. Still, I love the way they play off well against one another. The primary two are the classic combination of the older grizzled cop who has seen it all and the idealistic yet ambitious young female detective who is eager to make a difference. They play off well against one another and the moments where they're just getting to know one another's style of doing things is some of the best parts of the book.
I saw the "twist" ending coming from a mile away. However, the mystery isn't the major sticking point but how it expresses itself across the lives of multiple perspectives. The Claw is an individual who has terrorized the city multiple times but he's a figure who is arguably not responsible for his actions. Superheroes are prone to making more excuses for him than the public which he menaces and we get a nice little reflection of how the former's treatment of villains like, say, the Joker would come off to the people.
I was a big fan of "everyman perspectives" and the reason they succeed is on the strength of the characterization as well as giving a new perspective to extraordinary events. That is the case in SCPD. I think the city could have been developed a bit more and the superheroes a bit more likable but given the nature of the case, I suspect Keith didn't want them overshadowing his collection of Muggles in a world of superhumans.
In conclusion, SCPD is an enjoyable afternoon read. Notably, this is a series which "jumped companies" and continues after the events of SCPD under a new series name and company in Super City Cops. I haven't checked out those books yet but I am inclined to do so. This is the equivalent of a hamburger and fries sort of fiction and that's sometimes just what you need.
THE GUNS ABOVE by Robyn Bennis is a steampunk novel which I am quite happy to share with fans of the genre. Steampunk is something of an oddball creation which emerged from combining all the wonderfully oddball 19th century science fiction of Jules Verne, H.G. Welles, and Arthur Conan Doyle with a more critical examination of the period's many failings. These include sexism, imperialism, racism, classicism, and a bunch of other isms.
ARTEMIS is the second book by Andy Weir, author of the Martian, and had a lot riding on it. The Martian was huge for a first time author, hell for any kind of author, and was a hard science fiction novel which received a lot of mainstream attention. Heck, when you get a movie starring Matt Damon, you are set for life. However, it wasn't enough to get me to read the book or watch the movie. Instead, I picked up Artemis' audiobook for the presence of Rosario Dawson.
RATED R by Mike Leon is exactly that. It is an R-rated novel which is a dedication to all the R-rated movies of the 1980s from horror movie exploitation films starring buxom teenagers stalked by serial killers to the kind of big exploding things action movies that had people named "Arnold" in the cast list. The glorious cheese factor of the 80s coats virtually every page of the novel and it is acknowledged by the author to have been partially inspired by Hack/Slash (one of my favorite indie comics).
Rob J. Hayes is one of the great underrated independent fantasy authors of today but that may be changing as his latest work WHERE LOYALTIES LIE is a finalist in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. He's an author who writes extremely good grimdark that involves morally ambiguous characters, plots, and twists that draw companions to Joe Abercrombie. However, is it possible for him to write something LIGHTER?
RED SEASON RISING by Dominick Murray is a dark epic fantasy story about a recently-made independent fantasy kingdom which finds itself under siege by an unknown race of humans, their very powerful new god, and their former Imperial rivals. It opens in a intriguing way with a secret series of assassinations spread throughout their borders that forces the protagonist on a forced march through horrific weather conditions--only to find out the message he brings is occurring throughout the realm.
The best part of the book is the start where we get the unusual depiction of a borderlands garrison and our protagonist dealing with the uncertainty of an ill-suited commanding officer, a useless dead-end position, and no way of calling on reinforcements. I could have read an entire book set in this underused setting. Instead, this is but the start of a very long journey which takes our protagonist across the entirety of the continent.
I like the character of Kalfinar but I also admit he's something of the book's biggest weakness. Perhaps it's because I've been exposed to so many protagonists who are dark, brooding, middle aged men with tragic pasts that I expect a bit more. He's a fine vehicle to view the world through but he does seem like an observer to events more than someone with many strong opinions on what's going on at times, though. While he can sometimes be a fascinating character in his sullen brooding, Kalfinar is also quite a bit more detached from the action than I think the series needed.
This would be forgivable if there was someone who could contrast against Kalfinar but virtually everyone in the book is a brooding and sullen sort that you would think the story takes place in the land of Cimmeria. Everyone seems to be oppressed by the coming war and while that's perhaps believable, I couldn't help but think everyone was in The Walking Dead versus a Medieval Fantasy novel.
Thankfully, this flaw is made up for by the fact battle is visceral and chaotic with a sense that no one is unbeatable and death is a constant threat from even the least wound. Action isn't the most memorable part of the book but it's certainly up there and the author has a gift for righting exciting but plausible combat. One of my favorite scenes of combat in the book is when our protagonists are visiting a foreign city, only to encounter a monster summoned by the local magic and being completely thrown by it the way someone from our world would be. You don't see that very often in fantasy.
D.M Murray has created a thoroughly detailed setting for his fantasy series with peoples, religions, countries, politics, and age old blood feuds that all feel authentic. I definitely could believe this was the story of people who really lived and it also benefited from paying attention to an often-overlooked element of real life: travel times. The journey from one location to another is not perfunctory but a serious concern as not only is travel perilous but delays in sharing information or joining battles mean the difference between victory or defeat.
Despite the presence of magic, gods, and demons in the book--it feels surprisingly low fantasy and is more of a historical work. I liked this view because it's easier to sympathize with everyone in a more grounded and realistic universe. The battles are extremely well done and there's some truly spectacular ones spread throughout with an especially big one at the end. Readers should be warned this book ends on a cliffhanger with no resolution as the series is meant to be a long runner.
In conclusion, this is a good dark fantasy book weighed down a bit by a brooding protagonist that doesn't differentiate himself enough from his supporting cast. Even so, I definitely recommend this for those who want a well-developed fantasy world with epic battles plus the heaviest sense of foreboding since the Starks first said the words "Winter is Coming."
THE LAST CLOSET: THE DARK SIDE OF AVALON is a nonfiction novel by Moira Greyland, musician and daughter of acclaimed fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley. She is also a survivor of sexual abuse at her mother's hands.
EXPLODED VIEW by Sam McPheeters is probably one of the better cyberpunk novels written in the 21st century (the dawn of the era of "New Cyberpunk" when science fiction has become science fact). It is an independent novel published by the Talos Company that has produced some truly dark and epic stories too (Swarm and Steel, Godblind, and more). So, if you want to know if I recommend it, the answer is yes. If you want to know why I recommend it then read the rest of the review.
The premise is in the year 2050, the United States has become an overcrowded slum full of refugees who are treated like garbage by the rich, a corrupt police force, and a media obsessed society that routinely pumps out fake news from independent bloggers as well as corporate sponsors. So, the big change is the United States actually taking in people suffering in other countries rather than turning them away at the gate.
The protagonist, Terri Pastuzka, is a recently divorced lesbian police officer who works the beat of Los Angeles. It is a thankless task and the author does an excellent job of making you feel the moral ambiguity, ennui, and general disdain the life of a cop has in this era (or any era since this is a neo-noir novel). Normally, crime-solving is easy in this time periiod because "Pan-Optics" allow them to be reconstructed from the use of omnipresent surveilance from all nearby electronic devices--which isn't so much science fiction as PRISM.
One murder, which involves a refugee who lives among people not so wired, becomes a much harder case to solve which involves a lot of bodies by the end. This is not an action novel but a detective story which is more interested in showing the economically depressed, socially troubled, and corrupt society of 2050 Los Angeles off. It's a character study, relly, as Terri struggles to keep some of her decency in a society that has eroded most of it through simple grind.
An element of the technology which is somewhat unbelievable but quite entertaining is the fact everyone has access to the ability to re-edit movies or television to their liking. Like video game mods, you can have television characters switch their plots in mid-sentence, get naked, or change their dialogue at will. Our heroine loves mutilating the old Nick and Nora movies like The Thin Man.
I love all the little details like the fact skyscrapers have become community housing due to the fact all corporations are based online, the fact social media now coordinates horrible pranks called "Strangers on a Train" as a means of collective punishment, and how people can psychologically scar themselves badly by remixing their worst memories on television.
As a fan of classic noir like Chinatown and modern noir like L.A. Noire, I have to say this was a great novel and fit perfectly into the genre of cyberpunk. Technology has not made humanity better but just given us more ways to screw around with one another as well as scratch the itch of boredom. It gets abused by the government as well as the public equally. It reminded me a bit of Strange Days, really, and that's not a bad thing.
THE COVEN QUEEN by Jeramy Goble is a Dark Fantasy story about a cursed land, a queen who must quickly acclimate to being a tyrant, and a terrible hereditary horror which is constantly in the back of the protagonist's mind. Long ago, a member of the royal family made a terrible pact with the godlike Voidguardian. Each of the monarchs of the nation of Acorlian must be sacrificed when they reach a certain age but they must first give birth or sire an heir so the line can continue to be sacrificed indefinitely.
Jularra is a woman who does not want to bend down and become nothing more than another nameless sacrifice for a land which is collapsing despite her family's endless sacrifices. Acorlian is suffering famine and with no coin to pay for the people to be fed, she makes a difficult decision to become a conquering warrior queen to make the potential last years of her life into something worthwhile.
I like the character of Jularra who reminds me of how I hoped Sansa's storyline on Game of Thrones should have gone (more akin to Daenerys than Jeyne Poole's). She's a woman who has a dark side and a terrible burning anger which provides her with motivation to change her circumstances. There's a few grotesque moments where she unleashes her full power to execute or torture those who have offended her.
There's a couple of moments which didn't work for me in the book where the books gets a little psycho-sexual. Jularra is a person who has issues with lust and desire due to her curse, so she lashes out in some truly grotesque ways. I didn't think this was necessary and it clashed against the book's overall tone. Still, you've got to admit cursing a man to become grossly deformed "there" to the point of death is a memorable scene.
The strongest part of the story is definitely he conflict with Jularra as the time ticks down until she is meant to present a sacrifice to the Voidwarden. Another generation who has no hope to be anything but a brood mare and a viceroy for the monster who looms over the kingdom. There's a lot of emotion in that and the author handles the conflict well. The resolution also nicely ties up the story and leaves it as an okay standalone.
Overall, I have to say this was an entertaining story which is carried by the strong personality of its protagonist. I would have enjoyed the book more if there was a more detailed supporting cast but they mostly exist in relationship to the lead.