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.
Every once in a while you come across a book which is truly special and I will volunteer that Paternus: The Rise of the Gods is one of those books. It's a book which is genuinely imaginative and fascinating in its world building as well as the implications of such ideas. It's an action story with each of the the conflicts between being big, epic, and mythic affairs (for good reason too). There's a bit of American Gods, a bit of the Illiad, and even a bit of the Transformers.
The premise is humanity lives in the shadow of the conflict between two groups of "gods." I use quotes around the word gods because they're not actually deities. They're instead immortal human-like entities with superhuman abilities but still very killable. The two groups can, somewhat, be divided into "Good Gods" and "Bad Gods" but the good aren't really all that good while the evil are completely monstrous.
Two young teenagers named Fiona Patterson and Zeke Prisco are caught up in the crossfire between a newly revived Bad God army as well as the weakened remnant of the Good Gods. While the former were beaten twice before, the latter were devastated to the point they're barely holding on. Now the Bad Gods have apparently managed to figure out a way to revive their dead members and well, that's not good for anyone.
If I have one problem with the novel, it's the fact we get a little too much focus on the gods while I was really interested in the story of Fiona (and to a lesser extent Zeke). Both characters get a bit sidelined in describing the epic history of the various deities battling out. For some readers, this will be a plus as they don't have to see the inspiration for Moloch and Anubis through the eyes of teenagers. However, I really bonded with Fiona quickly and was saddened to see her marginalized for the gods' story.
Dyrk Ashton has a staggeringly nuanced grasp of mythology that seems influenced by Joseph Campbell. Gods are frequently combined in an Ancient Roman sense, giving us the idea there's usually one woman behind legends of beings like Artemis, Diane, and other Huntresses. Dyrk's knowledge of mythology is also not just limited to the traditional Olympian/Egypt/Norse collection of deities but includes many Semitic and Indian mythology references.
The battles between the gods and their histories are all described in loving detail. Dyrk Ashton is the kind of author who would benefit from a soundtrack. I'm imagining a big and epic bombastic score akin to Basil Poledouris' Conan the Barbarian or the Skyrim. While action in books is inherently limited, Paternus pushes the limits and creates some really riveting scenes.
There's a few suitably blasphemous ideas in the work such as the fact all of the gods are the descendants of Father. Father being the inspiration for God and all the other Sky Fathers of human religion. Except, Father is senile and completely useless. He's also an individual who has mated with animals in addition to people. That's notably something from mythology as well and a nice nod to the REAL origin of the minotaur.
In conclusion, I definitely think readers who enjoy big mythological stories and battles in their urban fantasy will enjoy this volume. I'm also going to check out the sequels as soon as they come out. Do I hope for some changes like a bit more focus on the humans and human-like perspective? Yes. I do. However, I'm not going to tell the author to write what I want.
FUTURE NOIR REVISED AND UPDATED EDITION: THE MAKING OF BLADE RUNNER by Paul M. Sammon is the second edition of an already extremely detailed novel chronicling the creation of the immortal Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford movie. It follows the troubled production of the movie from the writing of DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP up to the FINAL CUT which brought the movie in line with Scott's original vision.A word to the wise that this is a book for people who really-really love Blade Runner. It's not a work for the laymen as the author discusses the movie scene by scene. Paul Sammon was on the set of Blade Runner when it was first created and has kept up on the developments with the movie across something like twenty-five years. That's dedication.
The story of Blade Runner basically goes from being passed around as an option until picked up by Ridley Scott with numerous rewrites. Some saw it as a sci-fi action movie, some saw it as a love story, and some saw it as a cerebral philosophical movie. Notably, Phillip K. Dick and Ridley Scott disagreed on the fundamental premise of the Replicants: Dick thought of them as monsters who symbolized the worst in humanity while Scott saw the people who hunted them as such. Dick would pass away before the movie's release but got to see some of the film's early parts to his delight. Paul Sammon's enthusiasm for the material is infectious even if he's a bit too meticulous about details for my tastes. I would have loved to have heard from more people influenced by Blade Runner and spin-off material or the philosophical underpinnings of the story versus some of the stories he collects about the movie going over budget. Needless to say, there's a fascinating number of personal anecdotes and stories here.
For example, the beautiful Joanna Cassidy was actually the owner of the snake used in the strip club scene and was annoyed every time she had to put it up. She wanted to do an actual snake strip tease for the movie and was disappointed when they didn't put it in. Later, she'd allow herself to be re-filmed for the Final Cut to fill in the blanks of a scene--still looking very much like she did in her early twenties two decades later. Other actors and production crew are less enthusiastic about the subject with Harrison Ford's interview being hilarious because of how little he remembers about the movie. He's also a terrible interviewee, which makes some wonderfully pointed commentary.
"Would you like to talk about your relationship with Sean Young?"
The movie was not a success on its first release and we get an analysis of why that is, though Paul nails it in that the movie was great but ruined by poorly written voice over narrations and a tacked-on happy ending that didn't fit the movie's themes. The revisions of the film turned what was an above-average science fiction into an immortal masterwork. We get a complete analysis of how this all worked out and the kind of dedication which went into reviving the film.
One great section of the book is an analysis of the issue of "is Deckard a replicant?" The immortal question is answered about as factually as possible with Harrison Ford stating, "no, he's not," while Ridley Scott saying, "yes he is." There's also all the evidence in the movies across multiple versions compiled to give evidence to both individuals' sides. Personally, I go with Harrison on this simply because I think it makes a better story. The fact there's ambiguity on the subject at all is something which fits with the themes of the movie.
In conclusion, this is definitely a great book for film buffs and super-fans of Blade Runner but not something for the average reader. Nevertheless, with Blade Runner 2049 having shown the work still has legs, it's definitely something I'm glad I picked up. I am a huge Blade Runner fan and think the movie will stand the test of time to be a classic even a century from now.
ALTERED CARBON by Richard K. Morgan is probably the first major cyberpunk novel since Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH. The genre didn't die in 1992 but it suffered a bit of a downturn with only The Matrix actually carrying on the genre afterward. Basically it was the time computers became ubiquitous and corporations DID take over the world so the dystopian future of the 80s was just the present now.
Altered Carbon is something that helped revive the genre for the literary world even as the cyberpunk genre has managed to fix itself on television (Mr. Robot), video games (Watch Dogs), and now movies (Blade Runner 2049). It managed to give a boost to what was a dying genre that still had some wonderful independent stuff (Prime Suspects: A Clone Detective Mystery, The Immorality Clause, and Technomancer: To Beat The Devil). Altered Carbon is something special, though, with a truly great noir protagonist and an amazing setup.
The premise of the book is technology has managed to copy consciousness onto "stacks" that can be moved between human bodies at will. This means a person can be murdered one day and alive the next. However, this hasn't benefited the poor as while the rich can afford new bodies to be grown, the poor often find themselves cheated out of their bodies then dumped in a file drawer somewhere to live out their existences digitally.
A shoot-out results in Takeshi Kovas, former U.N. super soldier (called an "Envoy"), being killed and his consciousness hijacked before it's transferred to Earth. On Earth, he is blackmailed into serving a 300 year old "Methuselah" named Laurens Bancroft. Laurens apparently committed suicide with one of his previous bodies but wants Takeshi Kovacs to investigate as that's not something he believes he'd do. If Takeshi doesn't, then he might never get off the Earth again or worse. What follows is a noir mystery involving porn, classicism, a sentient hotel, gangsters, and affairs with beautiful women. Plus more body-swapping.
What truly works about the story is it managed to combine the low life with the high tech. Takeshi Kovacs is a sociopath, a manipulator, and a professional killer but it allows him to move between the worlds of corrupt high society along with the dingy digital strip clubs with practiced ease. Sometimes he's helping a family of impoverished fishermen try to get their bodies' back while others he's trying to deal with the fact a police officer is in love with the body he's currently inhabiting even as he sleeps around with a client's wife. Good stuff.
Much like classic detective fiction, Takeshi is an outcast investigating the seedy underbelly of the Big City (Earth in this case). Everyone has secrets to hide and all of them are morally compromised to one degree or another. Takeshi's own corruption makes him unpredictable as he's willing to cross quite a few moral lines but has a genuine disgust for a number of people in the book. The fact he can't permanently die is mitigated by the fact the body he's in is the one of someone who can't afford a replacement. So while Takeshi might survive the book no matter what, he's being held hostage to someone else's existence. Plus, there are permanent ways to kill people in this world--they just require destroying the device which stores memories that's located in a person's head. Destroy the brain, destroy the cyber-zombie so to speak.
I think my favorite characters in the book are the Bancrofts and Officer Ortega. The Bancrofts are a corrupt and decadent old family but I don't think of them as evil, just extremely flawed. Certainly, Laurens has a better side to himself than people suspect even as he's also undoubtedly a sleazy old man. Miriam is similarly multi-faceted, being the kind of femme fatale I think Takeshi would love under other circumstances. Ortega? Ortega is a nicely flawed hypocrite who is, nevertheless, probably the most decent person in the story.
I love all the characters, I love the world created within, and I love the technology despite how horrifying it is. It's fairly clear the people aren't "transferred" but just mentally copied by the technology. That means we get to see the cast murdered repeatedly across the series as well as brainwashed into thinking they're other people. It's dark, humorous, and entertaining but also sometimes sweet. The action is fast, the situations absurd, and yet it all makes a wonderful amount of sense. It may not be the best cyberpunk novel ever written but it's close. I'm very excited about the Netflix adaptation of this book coming out but I think there's no substitute for the novel.
SNOW CRASH is a fascinating book because it is the only time I have ever seen a parody of a genre (which wasn't that serious to begin with) become a pillar of said genre. In this case, Snow Crash is probably the most influential cyberpunk work after Blade Runner and Neuromancer. It's also an enormous piss-take at the cyberpunk genre as well as its tropes.
READY PLAYER ONE is an 80s cyberpunk re-skin Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This is interesting because aside from using "World of Imagination" in the movie trailer and the Washington Post quote above, I don't recall seeing many reviews of the book bringing up the fact it's the same story: an eccentric billionaire with a beloved franchise leaves said franchise as well as his wealth to the person who can pass his peculiar tests. Except, in this case, it's not a chocolate factory but a virtual reality equipped version of the internet he owned lock, stock, and barrel.
NEUROMANCER is the original cyberpunk novel which, along with the film version of Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, created the genre. The book, itself, is actually quite flawed but more than makes up for it with the sheer depth of the vision presented to the reader. In what is actually a fairly short book, an entire world is introduced and went on to inspire hundreds of knock-offs, pastiches, and some genuinely new ideas. If you're a gamer, watched a lot of anime, or enjoy dystopian sci-fi from the 80s as well as early 90s then you probably have seen something inspired by this world. Like the Lord of the Rings for fantasy, it is a work you owe it to yourself to read if you like cyberpunk.
The premise is the world has utterly gone to crap but technology has continued to advance. The world is a buffet of interconnected cultures, particularly Asian, but stuffed together in a squalid collection of polluted cities. Henry Case is a console jockey (a hacker before the concept became prevalent) who has been rendered chemically unable to link with the internet's virtual reality interface.
A ruthless criminal and drug dealer, he would do anything to be able to get back on the internet (called, I kid you not, the Matrix). The opportunity for him to get back online comes in the form of the beautiful Molly Millions who is willing to hook him up with her employer's contacts if he helps her with a mission to remove the restrictions on an already-insane Artificial Intelligence. It's a profoundly bad idea but Case is desperate enough to do it--as is everyone else the A.I. Wintermute has assembled to carry out its insane mission.
What follows is a surreal journey through everything from the space station belonging to a cryogenically frozen incestuous band of trillionaires, strip clubs for cyborged prostitutes, and even a universe existing digitally (which was far more impressive back in the early 80s). The grotesque mixes with the amazing mixes with the gritty, making a sort of techno Oceans 11 meets Alice and Wonderland combination--only for adults and on acid.
Part of what makes the book so good is the protagonists are deeply damaged but relatable. Despite Gibson having something of an "economical" relationship with description, you get to know Molly and Case intimately to the point they felt like real people to me. Molly was an early crush of my fourteen-year-old self and only slightly less real than the other girls around my nerdy self. Most of us wished to be like Case and attract her inexplicable attention. There's just something incredibly cool about the "Razor Girl" and she is a character is rightfully viewed as Gibson's best.
While Case and Molly are relatable, everyone else has stepped forth from a carnival funhouse. It says something about Gibson's world that a net-addicted criminal and his ex-prostitute turned cyborg assassin girlfriend (in the loosest sense of the world) are the two most normal people in the world. Their bosses are a brainwashed military commander and a A.I. with a God complex while their closest partner is the digital ghost of Case's former mentor. The characters in the book just get weirder from there.
In conclusion, do I recommend this book? Hell yes I recommend this book. Unfortunately, it does come with some caveats. The description in this book is amazingly lacking, especially for characters. It is also a book with a lot gratuitous action and sex scenes--the lure of the forbidden to its original audience of teenaged boys. The jargon the book throws at a reader is also at times indecipherable. Still, I certainly had fun with it.
THE TRIALS OF OBED MARSH is a novel by Matthew Davenport (Broken Nights, The Statement of Andrew Doran). It is a prequel pastiche written in homage of H.P. Lovecraft's immortal THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH. Obed Marsh was a posthumous character in that novel, being a sea captain who made the monstrous pact with the Deep Ones that condemned his hometown to degeneration into horrific fish monsters.
THE SEER KING by Chris Bunch is a book which takes place in a fantasy version of ancient Rome with elements of the British Empire and India thrown in as well. I had this book recommended to me by Steve Caldwell of The BookWyrm Speaks multiple times but never found the time to actually read it. Basically, I just didn't know if I had time to get into a Game of Thrones-esque doorstopper with my reading list already overflowing. In any case, I decided to give it a try and am very glad I did.
The premise of the story is Damastes is a cavalryman for the setting's equivalent to the Roman Legions. Numantia is a proud and powerful civilization but it's reaching the end of its life cycle as it's current leaders, The Ten, have squandered much of its power in the pursuit of wealth. A wizard-general named Tenedos believes they can restore it to greatness by appointing a new king (himself) but the book opens with the two of them imprisoned after a failed coup so there's no doubt things are not going to go well for them.
Much of the book is told as Damastes telling his story to the reader, talking about how he grew up and became a cavalryman as well as his various trials and tribulations. It's a good method for telling us how the culture of Numatia works as well as all of its prejudices as well as problems. We spend a good half of the book with Damastes in a foreign nation occupied by his empire with the locals utterly despising him but our hero having no way to change the situation.
Damastes is an interesting protagonist as he's a mostly likable guy but primarily self-interested and not really one who wants to step out of his culture's attitudes. He wants to benefit from the imperialism and conquest his country engages in but doesn't want to beggar foreign nations either. He's something of a chauvinist but not so much as to make the reader repulsed by him either (or at least most readers).
Tenedos is an interesting character and reminds me of what you might get if you had Senator Palpatine as the protagonist. He's a genius and schemer who makes good arguments for why he should be the one to rule all of Numatia but you also get the sense he's happy to kill millions in order to do it. I like his friendship with Damastes as well with the latter thinking he's a good friend to the former while the former coming off more as a man who knows he can use Damastes as a reliable tool.
A warning to those individuals who are sensitive to such things but The Seer King has a lot of sex. Damastes says he doesn't like to brag but he has a woman in virtually every location across the empire and others falling over him. I don't dislike this sort of thing, personally, even if most of the women kind of blend together and it's not like his actual love interest really stands out by comparison. Still, those who assume this book will be sanitized shall find themselves quite surprised as it follows a much more George R.R. Martin treatment of sex, violence, and archaic attitudes. I don't know if I would call it grimdark fantasy since that genre didn't exist when this was published in 1997 but it's certainly a predecessor to the genre.
In conclusion, this is an older book but definitely one I was glad to pick up the Kindle version of and enjoy. If you like dark adult fantasy with a faux historical bent then this is definitely the work for you.
If you have never read Heinlein's Starship Troopers then Old Man's War is probably a 3.5/5. Without that familiarity, Old Man's War is an extremely entertaining and off-beat sci-fi novel with the quirky premise of a seventy-five year old man signing up for a new lease on life with the Colonial Defense Force. If you're familiar with Starship Troopers, the novel rather than the movie, then it becomes gut-bustingly hilarious.
Basically, Starship Troopers in it's original form is a coming of age drama about how the military life turns a somewhat spoiled and aimless young man into a hardened veteran. It's the classic story of the military sorting him out. It also talks about the benefits of a limited democracy where voting citizens have to serve in either the military or some other social service. Oh and there's the mech suits fighting against the Bugs that are the genocidal inspiration for Zerg, Tyranids, and creatures from Alien.
The first half of the book is easily the best with complicated world-building, interesting characters, and unusual development. The premise of the world is humanity has managed to reach the stars but what they've discovered is a reality where the majority of alien races are relentlessly hostile. In order to fight these opponents, humanity has developed specialized technology that allows consciousness to be transferred to young transhumanist (and green skinned) bodies that will fight these aliens on a thousand worlds.
John Perry is a great protagonist as we follow him as he deals with the death of his wife, the fact he has nothing left to look forward to, and he's somewhat estranged from his son. The future of Earth isn't much changed from today (there's a reason for that) so it's easy to empathize with its inhabitants. Watching the universe unfold through his eyes is both a poignant as well as fascinating experience.
Scalzi does an excellent job of justifying each of the elements which makes this bizarre situation. The transhumanist humans are all sterile and chosen from the elderly because the vast majority of them are going to die in battle. The elderly are people who have families and loved ones who they want to protect, which motivates them to want to fight harder while also being expendable since they were going to die anyway. Following the protagonist as he experiences a return to youth and the sudden violence of his new life is all very interesting.
The parody of Starship Troopers is this is a "returning of age" drama which also critically analyzes a lot of the elements of the original book. While the Colonial Defense Force portrays itself in the rousing jingoistic terms of the Federation as well as almost all aliens as mindlessly evil, the truth is far more complicated and horrifying. Paul Verhoven touched upon some of these themes in his controversial adaptation of the novel but Scalzi does it with a more deft hand. Even the narrator's "voice" is similar despite one being a teenager and the other being a septuagenarian.
Unfortunately, the second half of the book isn't nearly as original as the first so it starts to resemble other, less original, military science fiction. The love story between our protagonist and a clone of his wife is also creepy rather than endearing. Even so, there's some genuinely crazy and hilarious moments spread throughout. One of them involves the protagonists stomping through a colony of tiny aliens like Godzilla.
In conclusion, I have to say Old Man's War is an entertaining novel. It's not a great novel, though, because it requires a bit more familiarity with Starship Troopers than perhaps necessary and the second half is weaker than the first. Still, I recommend readers give it a try--especially if they are familiar with the original work. It isn't a perfect novel but it's certainly an entertaining one and sometimes that's all you need.