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.
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.
The third volume of Frank Miller's Daredevil ends not with a bang but a whimper. There's some good moments throughout the story but none of them reach the same level of heights as the second volume. There's also some unnecessary additions to this story including "What if Daredevil became an agent of SHIELD?" While technically part of Frank Miller's Daredevil run, it's not really what people expected from this collection and another sign this could have just been a single or double volume.
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.