Automatic Reload – by Ferrett Steinmetz (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Cyberpunk, Scifi, Romance

Tor Books; July 28, 2020

304 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor/Forge and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

A cyborg with a conscience. A genetically enhanced assassin who suffers panic attacks. A love story for the ages—albeit kind of an odd one. A cyberpunk-romance about two heavily augmented badasses who take on the world, and have a breakdown when it gets to be too much. A couple that is more machine than man, but turn out to be more human than most of us.

I could go on, but you get the gist.

Mat is one the best at what he does—a black-market merc with a heart of silver (not quite gold, but close). A killing machine that would rather not have to, and manages to do his job without as much as possible. And does it far better than most humans. That’s because Mat is more than your average human. He’s post-human: a cybernetically enhanced body-hacker who uses his deadly, deadly augmentations to save innocent lives.

He’s the best at what he does for two reasons. One, because he maintains his equipment and preps for his missions with an OCD mentality. He lives and breathes cybernetics—always tweaking his limbs to improve performance and firepower, to minimize casualties rather than increase them, obsessively watching and rewatching video of his previous assignments to learn what he could’ve done better, who he could’ve saved. He takes posthumanism to the next level—a search for perfection.

And two, he never strays into the light of day. Mat is the big fish in his stretch of river, and he likes it that way. As such, he makes a point never to draw too much attention to himself. If any of the bigger fish from downstream noticed, they might fancy a trip up. And if any fishermen caught wind of him, they might stop by. But behind both the fish and fishermen, there’s a larger threat. The IAC—called the “Yak”. They’re the shark-man in this scenario. The uh… landshark. The government agency that makes body-hackers disappear forever. And Mat would do anything to keep off there radar. But, like everyone else, it appears this self-preservation has a price.

And that’s $3 million for two hours.

With the biggest score of his life on the line, Mat accepts a mission he knows is trouble from the outset. And it all snowballs not an hour in. When an unknown power attacks his convoy, Mat learns that the shipment he’s been contracted to protect isn’t a package at all. It’s a woman.

Enter Silvia: genetically engineered assassin and ultimate badass. And current prisoner of the IAC. The organization that no one wants to be at war with. The shadow cabal that Mat has done his best to avoid, his entire life. And two minutes after meeting Silvia he decides to throw it all away. And frees her.

But when the biggest score of his life turns into its biggest fight, Mat learns three things surprisingly quickly—one, he’s not the big fish anymore. Even with the IAC, the police and other body-hackers out to get him, it becomes clear that Silvia is the biggest fish. She’s Jaws and this is her movie. Two—whatever else Silvia may look like, the woman beneath the mask is ultimately more interesting than the assassin itself. With reflexes Mat would kill for but a self-confidence that provokes a panic attack every other action, Silvia is definitely more than meets the eye. And three—whatever else you might say about their issues, the two are infinitely better together than apart.

But will they be allowed to explore this budding romance in full, or will Jaws end like the movie—with the shark dead, the romance over, no chance of a sequel, and not a dry eye in the theater?

Automatic Reload is a cyberpunk-romance thriller—it’s what would’ve happened if Nicholas Sparks had authored Altered Carbon, only with more explosions and panic attacks. Written by ‘Mancer author Ferrett Steinmetz, it’s the action-adventure blockbuster I wanted, with the relatable stories I needed. No, I’m not talking about the government-trained assassin bit. Nor the cybernetic ally augmented super-solider. I’m talking about both. Mat only lost the first limb. Shredded in a military mishap, it was replaced with a prosthetic that promised better, faster, stronger performance than the original. From there it was easy to see the promise of posthumance. He quickly swapped out the old meat-suit for a fresh batch of new toys; a body that would manage to correct all the mistakes of the flesh that he couldn’t fix himself. Mat was after the power to safe others, only at the cost of himself.

Silvia didn’t choose her augments. Where Mat went with the body-hacker enhancement option, Silvia went the therapy route. Experimental, government, classified therapy. In hindsight, most of those should’ve been red flags. But at the time, she was desperate. Desperate to get on her own two feet, to get her life together—to please her family. The family that had done everything for her; her Mama, who both supported and belittled her, but loved her more than anything; and Vala, her sister, who lived and died for Silvia, fighting to build her up whenever their mother put Silvia down. Though the government reformed her body, they didn’t repair her mind. I guess that was Step B in therapy.

I related very well with each of these characters. While I know nothing about being a soldier, I know everything about depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and not feeling in control of your own mind. It’s an incredibly humbling, immensely frustrating experience. One that has you often desperate for a miracle cure: something that can fix you, fix everything, the dream of post-humanism. A role that Mat and Silvia fill perfectly. There is so never any chance of perfection in life—despite the fact that this is what Mat does, what he strives for day after day—it’s just a pipe dream. Silvia is about as far from perfection as one can get. Not only can she not control her mind, her body is suddenly alien as well. Before, neither has lived very well. But now, they are forced with a decision. Apart, the odds of survival are almost nil. Together… well, it’s higher. So, better together. Better together, but not perfect.

But life is never perfect, and death the only alternative.

TL;DR

An amazing cyberpunk adventure. Action-packed, romantically steamy, emotionally unstable, and more—Mat and Silvia represent a team that I’d love to see more of down the road. A few unique and unexpected twists later on in the story kept the plot intriguing, and never hard to read. I have very few complaints about this book. The story was great. The trials and travails faced within were both relatable and inspiring. Despite the leads being debatably “more-than human”, each demonstrated their humanity perfectly. It’s unclear whether the text argues more for or against transhumanism. I think it makes the case for posthumance, but urges restraint. But you can decide for yourself. My biggest issues were with the world-building—that we so rarely got a glimpse of the world outside the immediate story—though it’s a minor gripe. Truth is, I loved this book. Probably my best of the year thus far. Easily recommend.

An Ember in the Ashes – by Sabaa Tahir (Review)

An Ember in the Ashes #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Razorbill; April 28, 2015

464 pages (ebook) 15hr 22min (audio)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

In the Martial Empire, no one is free.

Laia is a Scholar—one the Empire’s second class citizens. Her people have been oppressed by the ruling class for years, good for nothing except servitude and slavery. Some few have elevated to craftsmen and above, but none are trusted. Laia’s parents wanted something better for the Scholars; so they were killed. Years later Laia lives with her grandparents and her brother, Darin, but that too is about to change.

When he’s caught with sketches of a Martial forge, Darin is arrested for treason. Her grandparents are killed, their shop burned to the ground; the work of a Mask—the Empire’s faceless assassins. Laia manages to escape—but her alone. With no other option, she is forced to turn to the Resistance, though they’ve already ruined her life once.

Elias is a soldier. Born a Veturius—the daughter of one of the most renowned and elite families in the Empire—he was the son Keris never wanted. As such he grew up a faceless tribesman, before he was found out and brought home to the Empire by his grandfather. There he was sent to Blackcliff, the prestigious military academy, to follow in his mother’s footsteps. It was an honor he never dreamt of and a fate he never wanted.

As Laia is a slave by birth, so too is Elias.

Yet neither is keen to stay that way.

Elias plans to defect, to leave the Empire—and his family—behind. But the Augurs, immortal architects of the Empire, have other plans. See, the Emperor is dying, and without an heir, the line won’t last the year. And so a contest is announced to determine the next ruler—and the Augurs want it to be Elias.

Meanwhile, all Laia wants is her brother. But the Resistance isn’t willing to free him for nothing. So to help her brother, Laia is recruited as a spy. She is to gather information about the Empire: their movements, their secrets, anything useful—and report it to the Resistance. But to free Darin, she has to find something worthwhile. And to find something worthwhile, she has to go somewhere important. Somewhere like Blackcliff.

*—•—*

I read about 70% of this as an audiobook, before my library loan expired. Then, I read the rest as an ebook. While both were decent platforms, the audio was highly immersive, with great voice talent that really got into their parts. Though I probably read through the most tense, thrilling, and heart-pounding sections at the end, I never enjoyed the story more than in its audio-format.

All in all, I was a big fan of AEitA. But… I think it was a little too intense for me. This book has all the tension of a YA fantasy under the constant strain of puberty. I mean, CONSTANT. Laia is high-energy paranoid, and with the stress of having to save her only brother WHILE going undercover in Blackcliff knowing that all the previous spies that have done so have died AND ostensibly doing it alone—it kind of shows. She is highly strung, but for a very good reason. This made her chapters all high-energy, fully pumped up, heart-pounding stress and tension. Elias, meanwhile, is almost as intense; trying to survive Blackcliff, while dealing with the added pressure garnered by the name Veturius, and the constant tug-of-war between his desire to desert the Empire and the loyalty he shares with his few friends and comrades, particularly his best friend Helene—whom he may or may not be in love with. [Yes, I realize those were both run-on sentences—no, I am not rewriting them.]

Both POVs confronted the normal issues YA stories deal with. But instead of one or two, they decided to tackle pretty much ALL OF THEM. Which, understandably, made everything pretty intense, energetic, and angsty. I found myself conflicted between the desire to find out what happened next and the need to stop reading and avoid the wave of stress that only YA development can cause.

As such, the romance was in parts fierce, intense and terribly awkward. As most YA romance is, generally. While I loved the characters in AEitA, none were stronger than those of its love-triangle. And while I hate everything about love-triangles in books, since I loved all the characters within this one—I still hated it. I’m not getting into this now. Or ever. Sufficient to say that I find said triangles to be awkward, annoying, angsty, and an unwelcome flashback to my youth where everything was awkward and so brutally important and cringe-worthy all the time. The romance wasn’t a bad-teen-romcom or together-forever romance. But it wasn’t not these things either.

As I said, I loved the characters. Elias and Helene dominated one half of the text, and as the story progressed, both characters continued to grow and develop. As does the relationship between the two. On the other side, we have Laia and Keenan (a Resistance fighter). I never bought into this romance, which seemed like it was introduced just to counter the possible Elias-Helene one. Keenan barely gets any screen time, and remains as weak and unfleshed a character as when he was introduced. And, while I mostly enjoyed Laia, she also infuriated me. Where Elias developed, she pretty much remained the same. Stubborn, paranoid, and standoffish—pretty much early stages Katniss throughout the whole book. Towards the end, her chapters began to annoy me in a very startling way—which was both good and bad. Bad, as she was frustrating. Good, as it demonstrated just how much I had bought into the story.

The characters of Markus and Keris were also quite strong. Okay, so mainly just Keris. Where Markus was your classic unhinged sociopath, Keris showed depth, change and insight—a potent combination for a character obviously designed to be a villain. Over the course of the book, we get to see quite a lot more of Elias’s mother than would be comfortable, but I was surprised to find a logic behind her thoughts and actions, and a justification later on. I’m not giving anything away—just that it was eye-opening to say the least.

The only other weakness I can think of is the setting. The world isn’t very well fleshed out in the first book, something I hope is corrected in further installments. I’d like to see more of the land beyond deserts, imposing fortresses, prisons, cities and tunnels. It all had kind of a dark and dreary cast in my imagination—I’d like to see a bit more vibrance from the setting in the future. Furthermore, a greater understanding of the supernatural world would be nice as well. We’re given just a peek of it in AEitA, with hardly any accompanying explanation.

TL;DR

While it may seem like your classic, run-of-the-mill YA fantasy-romance, An Ember in the Ashes isn’t satisfied with just tackling a few of the YA tropes—it does them all. Youthful development, romance, growth, love, hate, war, depth, sacrifice and compromise—seriously, it does them ALL. And though it helped make this read incredibly immersive, it was the characters that made it real for me. Elias and Helene, and Laia, were strong enough to carry the story through a dark and dreary, unassuming world, filled with men and monsters alike, as well as some of both. What brought me back to earth was the romance—a cringe-worthy dual love-triangle—one side of which never felt real. Adding to this was Laia’s refusal to develop, maintaining the detached, stubborn cast she’d cultivated throughout the entire text. When the rubber hit the road and all the threads converged, Laia stubbornly kept on as she had, annoying me and the plot alike.

While it has both ups and downs, An Ember in the Ashes definitely puts more to the good than the ill, making it a must-read YA fantasy that hopefully will only get better with time. A tetralogy (means “four”) that is set to wrap up later this year, An Ember in the Ashes continues with A Torch Against the Night, a book I’m definitely looking forward to reading. Probably as an audiobook. After that… we’ll see how it goes.

Firewalkers – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Novella

Scifi, Post-Apoc

Solaris; May 12, 2020

208 pages (ebook)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris Books and Rebellion for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The second Tchaikovsky novella in two years, Firewalkers features a cast entirely too young to drink, but old enough to wander the post-apocalyptic wastes of the world, fighting and dying for nothing more exotic to us than A/C. Hitting the shelves next week, most of us will be forced to get it via ebook, though it proves entertaining in any format. Just make sure you appreciate the cover—courtesy of Gemma Sheldrake—which is quite eye-catching, don’t you think?

The city of Ankara Achouka isn’t perfect. There’s never enough food, medicine, or water. There are rolling blackouts, if you can find electricity at all. Jobs are scarce, money is even scarcer. But here, at the base of the Anchor, those things are at least present. The rest of the planet is burning. Deserts and wastelands cover the world, the only refuge from the dying world being aboard the Grand Celeste—the only space station in orbit above the Earth. A space station connected via space elevator at Ankara.

At the base of the elevator sits the Anchor—the only area of government control left in Ankara, perhaps even the world—and within its domain the so-called “Roach Hotel”, a resort that caters to the super-rich and elite, so named for the fact that they check in, but never check out. This is where those powerful or connected enough spend their last days on planet, before ascending the elevator to orbit and the Grand Celeste. The hotel has food, water, and amenities. Amenities including A/C, since just because the planet is burning, god forbid the 1%-ers get a little uncomfortable.

But when the power goes on the fritz, someone has to go check and repair the solar panels—located far the south amidst the desolate wastes. Enter the Firewalkers. They leave the city to scavenge, scout, and yes, fix the power. Firewalkers are all young and desperate. Or the insane. They have a short life-expectancy, on account of the raiders, the predators, the heat, the desolation, the unknown beyond the bounds of Ankara Achouka. Only those with no future and no better option would consider the life of a Firewalker.

Mao is one such man. A legend at only nineteen—a middling age for one of his profession—he once walked back to Ankara through the wastes after an accident that killed his entire crew. Joining him are Lupé and Hotep, two of the best in their respective fields. Their mission: to restore the power to the Roach Hotel, before some of the elite lose their cool. Their lives have already been filled with disaster, but this trip into the wastes may well be their last.

If Adrian Tchaikovsky is the master of anything, it’s science fiction. Specifically science fiction with the most distasteful of organisms. His Shadows of the Apt series features a whole host of insects, while the Echoes of the Fall deals with predators. Children of Time plays host to spiders, and several novellas feature several other creepy crawlies. This one is no different, as, in Firewalkers, he returns to bugs.

I can’t get much into it without giving everything away, but if you have a problem with or a phobia of insects… maybe skip this one? Otherwise it’s a highly entertaining post-apocalyptic read. The characters are lovely, each with their own personalities and loyalties that evolved to impressive levels, particularly with this only being a novella (albeit a long one). All are well-written, as each portrays both strengths and weaknesses, making them seems very, very human.

The setting itself is quite interesting—something of a cross between the world of Metro and the Darwin Elevator, with Tchaikovsky’s particular brand of chaos thrown right in. Though I’d really’ve liked to know more about the state of the world. There’re hints of additional space elevators, the status of which is unknown. The setting itself is a bit of a mystery; I was guessing Africa somewhere, though the most famous Ankara is in Turkey. Other than these few hints, the world itself is hidden in the fog. Or, it’s burned up. There’s very little given. It’s more the kind of story that’s “here’s the world, this is how it is—it’s not about what happened, it’s about the future”. I have a mind curious for details; I always wonder after what’s happened before.

While the story itself is pretty good, it isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read by Tchaikovsky. Firewalkers takes a decent amount of time to get moving, and there’re distractions along the way. It’s a solid 4-star tale, though there was a bit of a letdown at the end. Nothing big—the story was completed and all threads tied up nicely—it was just a bit underwhelming. While once I got into the meat of it I had no problem reading to the end, it took some time to get to the meat, as it were.

TL;DR

With a landscape like that of Hades and a plot out of Metro, Firewalkers tells a post-apocalyptic tale not quite like any other. Together with Tchaikovsky’s particular brand of chaos, it makes for an entertaining read—with excellent characters, a provocative setting, and good writing throughout. However, the story takes a bit to get off the ground, and wanders a bit more upon doing so. Additionally, the world-building itself seems incomplete, with little more told than those aspects directly relevant to the matter at hand. All in all, Firewalkers is definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of the author, or short on reading material.

Emergency Skin – by N.K. Jemisin (Review)

Forward Collection #3

Scifi, Dystopian

Brilliance Audio; September 17, 2019

33 pages (ebook) 1hr 4m (audiobook)

4 / 5 ✪

Imagine, if you will, an Earth that has died. It had advanced so rashly, so perilously, without taking into account the weakness of some members of its society and how surely they would lead to its eventual destruction. Now this destruction has come to pass. Your ancestors, by some stroke of luck, have survived, ferried away by the last vestiges of humanity to scrape out a living aboard a distant colony-ship with the remnants of your species.

Now imagine your upbringing. You are raised on stories of how the Earth was lost. Whom and what led to its downfall, how it could have been prevented, and how your ancestors had been saved. For years, you were bred for success, strengthened with facts and knowledge, and honed to endure your survival on your eventual mission back home.

Home—to the Earth that was lost. There are some few, primitive peoples still there, backwards and wallowing in their filth, mating with swine and goats while killing and eating one another just to survive. Now you are on a journey back to the homeworld—to retrieve a necessary mechanism essential to the survival of your colony, your people.

Oh, and there are a couple other things your leaders neglected to tell you. Hardly matter, not important. But, they were nice enough to gift you with a cutting-edge implant to monitor your mission and provide any additional details you may require. It has a lovely, sophisticated accent, borne from sophisticated minds. They just neglected to mention how racist, sexist and otherwise terrible it is. And, for that matter, how different the Earth is from the way you’ve pictured it all this time. But those are minor details, footnotes to your quest, which should command your full attention. For your life—no—the survival of your very species, is in your hands.

Behold the master of the second-person narrative point-of-view returns! Yes, we’ll need to work on the title. It IS a bit cumbersome. N.K. Jemisin is back will a short story that will change the way you look at… well, nothing really. It IS quite good though, if just a short diversion from life.

It’s a good short story, but little more. I listened to the audio version, which was about an hour long. There really wasn’t anything world-shattering about it, nothing that changed my perception of reality or shook my worldview. Yes, there was some racism, some sexism, some otherwise blatant bigotry—but it’s not like any of those things are particularly NEW.

It’s a good story; entertaining, immersive. It’s just so short—even though it could’ve been shorter. There’s not much to complain about, but there’s not much to praise either. Jemisin’s writing speaks for itself. She can definitely spin a yarn, that’s for sure. I had a slight issue with just how fast the brainwashing of a lifetime unraveled—it really should’ve taken more time, and I feel like the author purposefully limited the story to keep the length short.

It’s a shame, in a way, but nothing to dwell on. Seeing as how it was free and how it was about an hour read—let’s not overthink things. Read it, if you have Amazon Prime. Read it, if you’re bored, or really like N.K. Jemisin. Read it, if you enjoyed the other Forward stories. Read it for any other reason, but don’t expect to be awed. While the tale isn’t golden, it ain’t bad either.

Book Review: Early Riser – by Jasper Fforde

Standalone

Scifi, Dystopian

Viking; February 12, 2019

402 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

Early Riser opens upon an alternate Wales that’s seen an early Ice Age, one of many, and features long, cold winters followed by pleasant, warm spells during which time all of humanity basks in the sun’s glow, gorges themselves on food and drink, and prepares for a long winter ahead. A winter that most will sleep away. While the majority of the populace hibernates—enjoying a dreamless sleep in one of many specialized dormitories, towering over the Welsh countryside—those few in the Consul Service mind them, making certain nothing disturbs their slumber.

First year Winter Consul Charlie Worthing is untested, straight out of St. Granata’s Orphanage. Shortly into the text he is recruited by Chief Consul Jack Logan into the Consul Service as a Novice, but quickly achieves the rank of Deputy, even before his first winter is well and truly underway. But though many threats brave the winter’s embrace—Nightwalkers (they’re like slow, shambling zombies), Villains (mostly English rogues), Megafauna, womads, scavengers, insomniacs, and the mysterious Wintervolk—the greatest threat to Worthing and the sleepers may instead come from within. See, during their hibernation, humanity takes Morphenox, a drug that suppresses dreaming. Instead, in the blink of an eye, they pass from summer to summer, albeit many pounds lighter. A season later, they turn and do it all over again. But something troublesome is traversing the halls of the Sector 12 Dormitorium. Viral dreams. Odd, yet consistent. A blue Buick. A beach in summer. A photograph.

Charlie Worthing initially dismisses the viral dreams as nonsense. Until he has one.

The blue Buick. The beach in summer. The artist living next door. The photograph shared, and yet… Something is wrong with the dream. But Charlie is careful with this newfound knowledge. For if people find out he’s been dreaming, life will certainly get interesting.

Well, MORE interesting.

Add in a pair of women who are one, a beautiful woman that Charlie loves, a dude named Shamanic Bob, a mystery that’s made all the more mysterious by the fact that it’s a mystery what exactly the mystery IS, and the Gronk—a legendary Wintervolk (although all Wintervolk are legendary in the sense that really no one believes they exist) that preys upon those unlucky enough to run across it in the snows, leaving behind nothing more than a neatly folded pile of clothes—and, well, you get Early Riser.

Personally, I found it quite spellbinding until the end. Whereupon in goes all Inception and dream-hopping confuses the very nature of causality. And I got lost. I actually reread the ending three times before giving in. Stuff happens, I’m just not sure of the specifics.

Charlie is a quite likable character. A great narrator, too. The world flows well through his eyes, normalcy and weirdness alike. Okay, so mostly weirdness. I… what more can I say about it?

I like the cover.

Bottomline, it’s an entertaining, if ultimately confusing adventure. Set in a vividly imagined, if confusing winter world. Starring intricate, odd characters. Up to the 90% mark, I was all for giving it 5 stars. The ending was a disappointment. But everything leading up to it was pure—if muddy—excellence.

And, yeah.

Book Review: The Grand Dark – by Richard Kadrey

Standalone (?)

Film Noir, Dark Fantasy

Harper Voyager; June 11, 2019

432 pages

2 / 5 ✪

The Grand Dark is a roaring-20’s dark, film noir set in a fictional world with robots, chimeras and more drugs than an entire nation must know what to do with. This vibrant, dark world brings us to the banks of Lower Proszawa, a city at the end of the world. Its populace now revel, having survived the Great War which stole away their sister city, High Proszawa, formerly set across the bay. Though the city can be incredibly vivid and detailed, the lore surrounding it is anything but. The lead POV, Largo, though possessed of visions for his future, is happy now just living for tomorrow. His lover, Remy, stars at the Grand Darkness Theatre itself, and shortly into the tale, Largo lands himself a new gig, complete with higher pay and all the advantages it brings him. Unfortunately, he is soon confronted with a mystery the likes of which he doesn’t even seem to pick up on for over half the book.

The Grand Dark is a perfect example of a good idea let down by its own lofty expectations. Its blurb describes the book as “a subversive tale that immerses us in a world where the extremes of bleakness and beauty exist together in dangerous harmony in a city on the edge of civility and chaos”. Indeed, it is the world itself that makes The Grand Dark a triumph, if for but a moment. Kadrey does well to paint an alluring picture of a nation ravaged by war, on the brink of chaos, its hedonistic populace living for the day rather than saving for the ‘morrow. Except for a few key details.

Despite the mention of the Great War haunting near each and every page in the book, we really never find out anything about it. High Proszawa was reduced to rubble; the Lower city survived; veterans of the war—known as ‘Iron Dandies’—skulk about, their mutilated faces hidden beneath iron masks; and… that’s about it. The enemy is just referred to as “the enemy”, if at all. The cause of the war is never mentioned, or questioned.

In the prompt, and indeed later on in the text, it states the city is on the brink of chaos. Except it doesn’t really feel as though it is. Largo sure as hell never notices it. Or, at least, never points it out. Until one day it pops up and he doesn’t question it. Sure, there is dissenting literature, and a police force attempting to clamp down on it. But Largo isn’t really a political sort, so he pays it no mind. And when the chaos begins, it was as if he knew it would happen eventually.

The hedonism is definitely shown. For roughly 70% of the book, if you’d have told me this was a story of a guy who would alternating riding around on a bike with having sex, only to fill the other 90% in with drugs and booze, I wouldn’t’ve questioned it. Thing is, while there was a bit of mystery lurking around, to that two-thirds mark, no clear plot had emerged.

I have to give the drugs their own mention. From what I’ve read in a number of other reviews, I was not alone in feeling put off by the sheer amount of narcotic paraphernalia. But Largo is obviously an addict, and addicts often do devote an awful lot of time to whatever they’re addicted to. The thing is, for the amount of time Kadrey dwelt on this, I left the book feeling like he didn’t actually know what he was talking about. Later in the story, Largo gives up morphia—it’s not really a plot point, so I don’t feel bad spoiling it. He’s pretty much hopelessly addicted by this point, having been on it pretty much since the war ended. He kicks it, cold-turkey and in a couple days, is feeling no adverse side-effects. I mean… none. It doesn’t seem like the author understands how addiction and withdrawal work. Which is impressive from the sheer amount of cocaine, morphia, hashish and whatnot that is present in the text.

One thing Richard Kadrey has always done well is his dialogue. The Sandman Slim books championed the foul, sarcastic asshole that was James Stark. At first, Largo is a sweet talking, playful scamp, and the entire world around him bends to his will. Despite having so many issues, The Grand Dark benefits from generally interesting conversations—even if the mostly revolve around hallucinogens. Towards the end, this all changes. No spoilers; it just devolves to a quick, dirty way to relay information. It seems that, after the three-quarters mark, the author was just as impatient to get it over with as I was.

Even the positive points I listed for the novel soon fell through. While initially I was entertained by the detailed city, the snippets of lore introduced between chapters, and Largo himself—the appeal of these quickly faded. The further I got in, the more cramped the world felt; nothing outside Lower (and High) Proszawa is even mentioned. The flashes of randomness between chapters became just that—introducing nothing new, just more sex, drugs and more drugs. As for Largo himself… he’s not right for this tale. It just doesn’t work well as told through him. He’s too naïve, too slow on the uptake; it’s almost as if he’s fighting the story that tries to take hold of him.

The bottomline: The Grand Dark is a highly ambitious project—one that just didn’t work out. The author spends overly long developing a story that seems amateurish when it finally comes together. The abundance of narcotics (half the damn book was a constant cocktail of morphia and cocaine), detracted from rather than added to the story. Little to no character development, a city surrounded by fog, references to things that are never revealed, a story that couldn’t wait to finish—are all reasons to skip this book. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read, but far, faaar from the best.

Book Review: Black Feathers – by Joseph D’Lacey

The Black Dawn Book #1

Horror, Fantasy, Dystopian

Angry Robot; March 26, 2013

494 pages

2.7 / 5 ✪

I first read Black Feathers in 2014 and really enjoyed it. Just goes to show what difference five years can make. The second time I got through it, I was put off by its inconsistency, an unsatisfying conclusion and a “look but don’t touch” world. D’Lacey manages to tell an interesting, entertaining story populated by real, human characters, in a world that (initially) can draw many parallels to our own.

The characters themselves are D’Lacey’s greatest achievement. Gordon Black is our pre-apocalypse narrator. Crows herald his arrival into the world, following his story from then on. The tale follows him from birth, early on casting him as the herald of the coming doom. His is very much a coming of age tale, as Gordon is just a regular boy. Dark hair, dark eyes, and crows follow him everywhere—but normal just the same. D’Lacey really manages to portray him as a flesh and blood kid, someone very real and human. This is a triumph for any author: creating a relatable, mortal lead.

Megan, the post-apocalypse DJ, is… inconsistent. When I went to choose a paragraph to describe her, “inconsistent” was as far as I got. Hers’ is as well billed as a coming of age tale. She is as well chosen by the Crowman. But, rather than to live his tale like Gordon, she is tasked with telling it.

Megan isn’t a believable POV. What I mean is… okay: it’s a coming of age story for her. When the reader is first introduced to her, Megan is just a kid. No puberty, no experience with the world, no Crowman. And she acts like any other kid. Until her second chapter. She runs across the Crowman before the first, in the first we find her fleeing from him. In the second, she begins her tale about seeing him. And she completely departs from her background (as just any other kid) thus far. Only to fall back into it after the story ends. I understand that D’Lacey is probably trying to set the mood here. But she’s just a kid. The words she uses, the pauses, the explanations, her state—they all change. They’re too advanced, too professional, too… scripted. D’Lacey flip-flops on her enough, going between her being just a kid, maturing into a young woman; to a mature, well-worded and serene woman—sometimes even chapter to chapter.

The looming apocalypse seems very plausible at first. A world wracked by natural disasters, solar flares, a tanking economy, an outbreak of war and strife. One full of shades of grey. When the Crowman is entered into it, the plausibility is muddied somewhat. Later, when he/it takes center stage, I felt a real disconnect between the story I was reading, and the one carries on from there.

It was a very dark tale. But it tried to be something more, even should’ve been something more. D’Lacey makes a play for a realistic apocalypse. Something that could very well happen today. Black Feathers is almost… could’ve been this, maybe. But loses itself shortly after inception. Gordon Black’s story (the story of the Crowman) gets distracted, and becomes the story of the Ward.

The Ward is the organization running Britain. Through the beginning of the tale, they become more and more prevalent in the UK, gaining political strength and support. They represent control and stability—or try, at least. A quasi-communist, nationalism, isolationist state. Eventually, they go after Gordon, trying to prevent him from reaching his destiny. And in doing so, any realism the story might have cultivated goeth out yon window. I mean, the reasoning behind this—the prophecy, or whatever—isn’t well explained. There are bits and pieces but. It doesn’t feel realistic. Or like a good scifi story. By attempting to toe the line between these two, any chance at being either is gone.

It’s not that Black Feathers isn’t a good read. It presents an adequate premise which it carries out reasonably well. But slowed down by inconsistent characters and a story that can’t decide what it is, D’Lacey’s possible masterwork becomes just another book, though an interesting one. Any lack of conclusive ending left a bad taste in my mouth, even through beginning the second one (note: I never finished #2, for a number of reasons) Worth a read, though. Maybe get it from the library, or on sale.