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Guests Gone Bad

Guests Gone Bad

posted by:
August 14, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for The Paying GuestsCover art for The QuickHow are houseguests like fish? They both start to stink after three days, or so the joke goes. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Quick by Laura Owen, both set in London, are stories involving some houseguests that have truly gone bad.

 

In The Paying Guests, Francis Wray and her mother live alone in their upper crust dignified home, struggling to keep up appearances. Francis’ father died and her brothers were killed in the War, leaving mother and daughter penniless. To make ends meet, they decide to take in lodgers, euphemistically known as “paying guests.” Young newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber make the not-yet-30-year-old Francis feel like life has passed her by, until she begins a surreptitious love affair with one of the Barbers, which ends in tragedy and the courtroom. Waters, a frequent flyer on British writing prize lists, pens a literary thriller that examines the consequences of the societal and moral strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.

 

Author Owen’s debut novel The Quick opens with motherless siblings Charlotte and James exploring their moldering country estate home. As they grow, James heads off to boarding school and then to Victorian London, leaving Charlotte to a quiet country life with an elderly aunt. James becomes a paying guest at the home of a city widow, sharing lodgings and passion with a former schoolmate. What starts as dreamy period piece takes a sharp turn when James and his lover are attacked by a supernatural being and Charlotte leaves her narrow settled existence to become a vampire hunter. From the elite members-only Aegolius club to the Dickensian working poor, Owen’s vampire world is richly and eerily imagined. Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or John Harwood’s The Asylum should give The Quick a try.
 

Lori

 
 

Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Weirdness

The WeirdnessTeacher, blog and forum editor, roleplaying game designer and writer Jeremy P. Bushnell’s debut novel The Weirdness is the perfect amalgamation of his mediums of creativity. Only someone who has spent their life marinating in nerd culture would be able to devise a plot and cast as imaginative and unique as Bushnell has in The Weirdness.

 

Billy Ridgeway is growing too complacent with his life; all he has to show for himself as a self-proclaimed “writer” is a couple of short stories and a novel vomited forth at the tail end of a post-college-dropout bender of forced artistry. While his former peers are paying mortgages and spawning children, he’s stalled making sandwiches for eight hours a day at a Greek deli.

 

Of course, this all changes one morning when Billy awakens to a suave-looking dude he doesn’t know sitting on his couch. Introducing himself as “Lucifer Morningstar,” the dude offers Billy some coffee, and with it an only slightly nefarious proposal that would launch his writing career. In a rare bout of good judgment, Billy declines and tries to go about his day; unfortunately for him, Lucifer is a supernaturally persistent guy, and he’s about to make things weird—like, warlocks and sex-wolves and plots to take over the world weird.

 

Bushnell’s novel is a swirl of contemporary geek humor and sci-fi, blended with a unique, refreshing writing style. He uses unconventional means—absurd similes, unexpected question marks, hypothetical maybes—to create an amusing feeling of doubt and disbelief in his narrative voice, which allows his characters to act with as much hyperbole as the reader wants to perceive. The Weirdness has to be read to be believed, and should not be missed by anyone who enjoys contemporary, surreal fiction.

Tom

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Lightning Strikes Twice

Lightning Strikes Twice

posted by:
June 19, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for The crimson CampaignOften, the second entry in a trilogy — film or book — is the low point. It's the halfway point between the excitement, plot and world-building of the first book and the resolution, justice-meting out, comeuppance-slinging grand finale. That is not the case in The Crimson Campaign, the second book in Brian McClellan’s grand flintlock fantasy series, The Powder Mage.

 

The action in this sequel starts several months after the end of the first book, Promise of Blood. Tamas, McClellan’s analog for Napoleon, is facing a massive invasion on his country’s southern flank, but he has devised a counterattack that might turn the tide of the war. Tomas’s son, Taniel Two-shot, is just coming out of a coma after shooting the returning god Kresimir through the eye. Adamat, one of the few magical protagonists, is still looking for Lord Vetas, the man who holds Adamat’s wife and son hostage after unsuccessfully blackmailing him.

 

These three narratives soon explode and set off in separate directions, although with definite consequences for the others. Tamas and part of his army are cut off and presumed dead deep in enemy territory. Without supplies or reinforcements and constantly hounded by enemy forces, they must make a long, difficult march home. Taniel reacts to his father’s apparent death by traveling to the front to stop the enemy invasion and to face a General Staff that has already given up on the war. He will also face an angry, out-of-control god that he failed to kill. At home in the capital, Adamat finds himself outgunned, outmanned and facing powerful forces; meanwhile, he tries to unravel a conspiracy that may leave the capital city defenseless to political intrigue and foreign invasion.

 

McClellan turns the heat up in this second outing, raising the stakes even higher for the book’s protagonists. He has broadened his world by geographically separating the point of view characters. The pacing is frenetic, and the setting is derivative of the crisis period that faced France post-revolution. Yet, while there are many historic similarities, McClellan has gone in new exciting directions by creating a unique world much like a musician using familiar chords in a different progression. While some plot points are resolved and a tantalizing conclusion is in sight, McClellan has pulled off a bit of magic, making the reader hope the last book of this trilogy won’t be the last we see of this world or his characters.

Brian

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Let the Great Turtle Spin

Let the Great Turtle Spin

posted by:
May 19, 2014 - 8:00am

Cover art for Raising SteamRaising Steam is the 40th book in Sir Terry Pratchett’s incredibly long-running and hugely popular Discworld series. The Discworld is a disc shaped world being supported on the back of four elephants that are themselves being carried through space on the back of a giant turtle called A’tuin. The series is known for its humor and use of fantasy tropes to skewer the foibles of the modern world.

 

The Discworld has rapidly progressed from late feudalism to early industrial revolution as the era of railroads suddenly comes to the city of Ankh-Morpork. Through the lens of the some of our favorite characters, we watch the explosion of new services and new trade suddenly made available via the railroad as well as the great social upheaval it causes amongst races of Ankh-Morpork. There are definite echoes of Britain’s own rapid industrialization in Raising Steam. Also prevalent is the rise of religious fundamentalism and the attempt of fanatics to arrest progress at any cost to themselves and others. If there is slightly less humor and understated satire on this subject, it is understandable, and Pratchett makes up for with an unusual amount of action and fight scenes.

 

As the series has progressed, we the readers and the denizens of the Disc are feeling as if we are rushing to some final end – a feeling intensified with Sir Terry’s announcement several years ago that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Sir Terry has named his daughter as successor when the time comes that he can no longer write, and with 40 books and more to come set on Great A’tuin, that time may come sooner than many of us would like. One thing is certain:  Sir Terry, like his character Lord Vetinari, has been engaged in a “Great Work.” He has taken a series of light-hearted, slapstick, fantasy satires and transformed them into the one of the longest-running series of literature in the English language. These books are fun, spirited and have a deeper meaning that will hit you when you least expect it.
 

Brian

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Honeybee Buzz

Honeybee Buzz

posted by:
May 6, 2014 - 7:00am

The Bees by Laline PaullBritish author Laline Paull is setting the book world abuzz with her debut novel, an imaginative and gripping tale which takes place in a beehive. Paull began studying bees after a beekeeper friend died; the fascinating societal structure of the hive inspired her to write The Bees.

 

Flora 717 is a worker bee living in a hive valuing conformity. Born “obscenely ugly… and excessively large,” Flora is saved from immediate execution because a ruling class priestess wants to use her in an experiment. The hive’s rigid caste system relies on mind control and strict job divisions, which keep the hive operating for the good of the group, but its totalitarian mindset allows no individual freedom. Flora defies the limitations of her Sanitation class: She is able to speak, block other bees from accessing her thoughts and use her abilities to forge a unique role for herself when the survival of the hive is threatened.

 

In creating the intricate life of this honeybee colony, Paull did everything from attending beekeeper classes to watching nature unfold in her backyard. She blends factual bee behavior, like building honeycomb nurseries or the “dancing” and antennae touching which bees perform to communicate information, with elements of goddess worship, Catholic prayer and the British monarchy in her creation of a detailed parallel world. As in nature, The Bees is sometimes chillingly violent. It is also surprisingly funny, with its swaggering Drone class reminiscent of any Animal House frat bro collective hopped up on testosterone.

 

The Bees is being compared to the modern classic Watership Down by Richard Adams for its thrilling adventure and social commentary wrapped up in an animal story. This story makes a perfect book club choice or escapist summer read as Flora 717 takes the reader on a wild flight. Is Flora a traitor or a savior? The bees in your garden will never look the same again.

Lori

 
 

The Burning, Bloody Sands of Empire

The Burning, Bloody Sands of Empire

posted by:
January 14, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Thousand NamesLast year was an incredibly good year for fantasy novels, especially debut authors. Django Wexler’s first book, The Thousand Names, was one of the best of the year. Like Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, this is another “flintlock fantasy,” a subgenre where the historical context is much later than the typical Medieval/Renaissance setting, with muskets and artillery replacing swords and bows. The Thousand Names is set in a world much like Victorian Britain and, in this first in a series, the location is an analogue for Egypt under British colonial rule. Just as the Mahdi’s Revolt and religious reawakening threatened British rule in Egypt, the Redeemer Rebellion in Khandar has pushed the Vordanai Colonial Regiment to the sea. The Old Colonials hang on to a miserable spit of land awaiting evacuation, instead they get reinforcement in the form of Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, a character equal parts Field Marshall Wellington, General “Chinese” Gordon and Yoda. Vhalnich hasn’t come to organize a retreat, nor is his primary objective the re-conquest of Khandar, but something else entirely.
 

This incredibly well written military fantasy/adventure novel, full of deadly deserts and marauding horseman, harkens back to books like Beau Geste by Percival Wren and The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason and movies like Khartoum. It also breaks new ground in powerful female protagonists in gender-defying roles and romances. There are no damsels in distress here, as they are too busy putting cold steel to their enemies. Wexler has created a world that he can expand to a global setting or narrow to focus on court intrigue, as his next book seems to do. More importantly, the court intrigue and the excellently detailed battles never take primacy over character development. Waxler has given us a band of brothers — and sisters — that have depth and motivation, and are compelling to read about. The magic use in the book builds slowly and organically until the climatic end, which is a scene fit for the big screen. The Thousand Names delivers on all its promise and shows how a good fantasy novel can shake up old tropes and borrow and improve on tropes from other types of literature. It will leave you wondering why the second book isn’t already in your hands.

Brian

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A Whiff of Powder

A Whiff of Powder

posted by:
December 26, 2013 - 7:00am

Cover art for Promise of BloodThere is a new subgenre of epic fantasy that seems to be growing called flintlock fantasy. Traditional epic fantasy has a Medieval or Renaissance type setting; technology is limited, and religion and magic dominate. Not so in one of the best new contenders in this subgenre, Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan. Promise of Blood is the first book in the new Powder Mage Trilogy. McClellan’s world is poised on the brink of modernity, with steam power, labor unions and massed armies using cannons and muskets. Much as the modern era was kicked off with the violence of the French Revolution and rise of Napoleon, Promise of Blood begins with a popular military commander ousting the corrupt hapless king and his unfeeling nobility. Soon the cobblestones of “Election Square” — voting being carried out by guillotine — runs red with blood as Royalists seek safety from the revolution behind barricades.

 

Into what otherwise sounds like a retelling of Les Misérables, McClellan adds magic, lots of varied magic. The King is supported by his Royal Cabal of Privileged, which are like the traditional wizards of epic fantasy novels. The revolution is led by the Powder Mages, less powerful than the Privileged. They gain their power from ingesting gunpowder and bullets. The Powder Mages are a reflection of the new modern era about to be born. Other groups integral to the story are Knacked, those who only possess one single ability, and the Predeii, sorcerers older and more powerful than the Privileged. Lastly, there are the old gods, who are not pleased with the Revolution, and they are not forgiving.

 

Promise of Blood is full of battles, magic and mundane. It is rife with court intrigue and the maneuverings of a land in revolution. It features a cross section of characters from different cultural strata. It works on every level. The only good thing about reaching the end of the book is the knowledge that book two in the series comes out in February!

Brian

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What price would you pay?

Cover art for Dead SetNew York Times bestselling author Richard Kadrey delights adults and teens alike with Dead Set. After the unexpected death of her father, Zoe and her mother must move to the Tenderloin area of San Francisco while they wait for dividends from her father’s life insurance policy. To deal with her troubles in the real world, Zoe escapes into her dreams where she finds comfort and friendship from her dream brother, Valentine. A mysterious something — or someone — has also joined them in her dream world.

 

Back in the real world, Zoe happens upon a dark and dingy old record store. Most people walk right past the back room with the beaded curtain, but Zoe is curious and goes inside. There she discovers a collection of albums that contain something other than music. The grooves on these records contain lives — souls of people who have passed on but lingered in this world. Emmett, the proprietor of the record store, promises to help Zoe reconnect with her father. All it would cost her is a piece of herself. It starts with a lock of her hair.  The next time, the price is a tooth. How much would you pay to spend another moment with someone you loved and lost? And at what point does the price become too much?

 

Kadrey is best known for his Sandman Slim series. This dark, twisted, stand-alone fantasy novel will appeal to those already familiar with his work as well as those who enjoy a quiet horror story with a strong, albeit sometimes lost, female character.

Christina

 
 

Underground Clairvoyant Syndicate

The Bone Season cover image“Is Samantha Shannon the next J.K. Rowling?” That's the question asked in the July 15th edition of Forbes magazine. Shannon’s debut novel, The Bone Season, is the first in what's expected to be a seven-part series. The novel begins in an alternate universe in the year 2059, about 200 years after a plague covered the planet causing some of the population to become clairvoyant. In the world Shannon has created, there are guards who protect the Scion city of London from clairvoyants because the general population has been told that clairvoyants are dangerous. This futuristic world is a totalitarian society where clairvoyants have to hide their abilities and are treated as criminals.
 

Paige Mahoney is the 19-year-old protagonist of this science fiction thriller. She is called the "Pale Dreamer" because she’s a dream walker, a rare form of clairvoyant. All clairvoyants have a specialty, an area of the sixth sense at which they excel, and Paige’s spirit is able to leave her body and travel into the aether to visit the thoughts and dreams of others. She uses her gift for an underground crime syndicate that employs clairvoyants in a variety of ways depending on their abilities. The lifestyle allows Paige to be around others like her and not feel ashamed of her gifts.
 

The Pale Dreamer’s world is thrown into chaos when underguards discover that she is clairvoyant. She is taken captive and detained with others who have similar abilities. She must learn about herself and her gift in order to regain her freedom, but the task is greater than it seems and failing isn’t an option.
 

This is an incredibly unique book by a debut author. According to The Bone Season’s website, the book’s movie rights have already been claimed by The Imaginarium studios.

Randalee

 
 

The Home on the Fringes of Memory

The Ocean at the End of the LaneIt was a funeral that drew him across the pond and back to England. Time on his hands – and perhaps the expectation of nostalgia – led him deeper into Sussex, to the property where his childhood home had once stood.  He couldn’t say what it was that drew him further down the lane and deeper into reverie. A few minutes more and he had arrived: the Hempstock Farm at the end of the lane.  Whispers of memory kicked up like fog as he left the lane walking toward the farmhouse…he had known someone here, a girl named Lettie he thought. She had been his friend Lettie, who had called a duck pond an ocean and whose family had once been like his own for a time.

 

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, master wordsmith Neil Gaiman beguiles his readers with a new and haunting story - his first for adults since Anansi Boys. In a tale that treads the line between memoir and magical realism, Gaiman invites the reader to join an unnamed middle-aged divorcee as he sits along the bank of an ordinary pond in once-rural England. As he sits, the memory of a simultaneously terrifying and enchanting event in his childhood emerges. The memories of dangerous magic in improbable settings, of his own childhood helplessness, of his faith in Lettie and the Hempstocks, come roiling back to the surface with unexpected force and consequence.

 

This is a story that will engulf both the man and the reader alike, leaving each a little refreshed and a little bewildered at its conclusion. It is a story about true self. It is a tale of sacrifice, and above all it is a tribute to memories, those which haunt us and those which have the power to bring us home again, if only for a little while.

 

Meghan