Minor Mage – by T. Kingfisher (Review)

Standalone

Novella, Fantasy, Middle Grade

Red Wombat Studio; July 30, 2019

185 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Oliver is a minor mage. Though only 12, he’s the town mage of a backwater hamlet, one that has seen no water in quite too long. Therefore they’ve dispatched Oliver and his armadillo familiar to the distant Rainblade Mountains to bring back rain. Armed with his three spells—one of which controls his armadillo allergy, another that ties people’s shoelaces together—he sets off with only the vaguest idea of what awaits him.

What follows is a rollicking adventure filled with peril, sarcasm, armadillos, and times when it’s perfectly alright to miss your mother. It also teaches a valuable lesson about not overextending oneself and keeping armadillos as pets.

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

During a year like this one, full of deceit, jealousy, plague, anxiety, mayhem and more—it is good to have a nice, charming tale every now and then. Not that Minor Mage is always cuddly and cute. Yes, it has its moments of adorability, but it’s also a tale of reality, friendship, and coming of age. All told with an offhand humor that belies the danger lurking around every corner, often in stiff contrast to the drought, death, and darkness all around. While it is definitely told in Vernon’s distinct voice, mixing dark sarcasm, light cheer, reality and more, the wit and sarcasm has an almost Pratchett-esque feel at times (which is really the highest praise I can give it), without ever becoming anything too comic or glib. (Now if you were unaware that T. Kingfisher is actually just Ursula Vernon… spoilers, I guess?)

Whether it be “screaming bone harps”, “cheeping baby armadillos”, or “possessed potatoes”—the story delivers some frightfully odd one liners, that somehow turn out to be the most normal thing in the world later on. Well, maybe not the MOST normal thing.

All in all, I found Minor Mage to be one of the most lovely stories I’ve read this year, not lessened any by the fact that it is a children’s tale. While I was slightly put off by the ending (more when it ended, rather than the way it did), there’s still more than enough for me to recommend it, even if you aren’t one to usually go for Middle Grade.

TL;DR

While it’s not a deep dive into fantasy, Minor Mage is a welcome distraction from the world for however brief it is. Filled with interesting characters, light (and occasionally dark) humor, life lessons, and a very real sense of adventure—it’s the tale you didn’t know you needed quite as bad as you did.

The Kraken’s Tooth – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Seven Swords #2

Fantasy, Epic

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2020

136 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Second entry in the Seven Swords reunites us with Pilgrim and Seeker, fresh off their battle in the Execration against a mad god. While the Seeker remains shrouded in mystery, her path forward has become clear. She seeks a certain girl, sold into slavery, one that bears a striking resemblance to she herself. The Pilgrim however, has been unmasked. Guyime, known to history as the Ravager, seeks the Seven Swords—a collection of demon blades that imbue their wielders with power and unnaturally long life. A life that Guyime would escape.

But to do that he must travel to Carthula and claim the Kraken’s Tooth, a mythical sword said to be lodged in the heart of a long dead Kraken. Accompanying him on this fool’s errand are: Seeker, whose path seems to parallel his own, for now; a powerful sorceress from an equally powerful clan; and her’s father’s slave, a man that never forgets anything he’s ever learned. But will this trio be enough to help Guyime through a maze built from his worst nightmares and memories, or will this fellowship crumble once their quarry is in sight?

Other than the previous Pilgrimage of Swords, the Kraken’s Tooth has nothing to do with any of Ryan’s other work (that I know of, at least). As with the first, I wouldn’t’ve minded a full novel dedicated to this, though it works well enough as an installment of novellas. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, particularly those I’ve seen from the author, but these two have so far broken the mold. Kraken’s Tooth tells a complete story, with no skimping on plot or fantasy. It’s light on details, yet still manages to convey more than enough to paint the Seven Swords in vibrant colors. I had no issue getting into or following the story, and if anything even less imagining it. Any character development does suffer from the lack of material, with details such as interpersonal relationships, reliability or anything more than brief flashbacks are absent. The characters themselves might as well be mannequins, except for Guyime, who has overcome his stoicism from Book #1 and now just seems gruff and distant (and maybe Seeker, who I’m assuming is supposed to just be mysterious, though it’s difficult to tell).

Other than the character aspect, I had no problem getting through Kraken’s Tooth. There was more than enough action and adventure to entertain, while the story holds a political undertone and throws in a bit of mystery and drama that didn’t hurt either. And as I’ve already mentioned, the world is well rendered—with just enough detail left out that the Carthula I imagined likely won’t be the same as anyone else’s—while still getting the most important aspects of the story across. It may be imperfect, but I’d definitely recommend the Seven Swords to any fan of mainstream fantasy, epic, grimdark, and more. I can’t wait to read the next installment and see where the story takes us next!

The Seventh Perfection – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Novella

Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; September 22, 2020

160 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

How long does it take for a lie to unravel? How long for an empire to fall? While it might be set in motion by a single rock falling, it might take ten thousand years for all the stones to fall.

Manet is having a rather bad day.

Amanuensis to the God-King, she had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and evolving her mind into something past the point of humanity. Something approaching perfection. She remembers everything that has happened to her since arriving ashore the White Isle. She can sing, play the harp—perfectly—she can keep numbers and translate; she can serve her God—perfectly.

What Manet cannot do, however, is forget.

When a locket with a certain photo appears on her doorstep, it reveals a secret from her childhood that Manet hadn’t remembered. A secret that she just can’t forget. A secret that rips a gargantuan hole in the story of the God-King’s ascension, a story that she has taken as gospel her entire life. But when Manet goes down the rabbit-hole to follow this thread, she soon learns that doing so is a step she can never untake. But Manet will learn the truth, no matter the cost to her life—and that of the world itself.

This one was a bit of a slow build, to be honest. I actually thought of abandoning it—twice—prior to reaching the quarter mark. Glad I continued!

I could never really figure out what Age this story took place in. Some parts seemed to indicate an alchemical, maybe industrializing fantasy world, others a more science fiction, advanced dystopia. I’m pretty sure it was intended this way, however, as you’ll find out.

The story is told entirely through the viewpoints of others, with no input from Manet herself. This took some getting used to. We don’t hear (or see) what Manet has to say, what she thinks, what she knows, her wants, her desires, her dreams—not exactly, at least. At first this drove me crazy (yes, to the point where I considered stopping), but around the quarter mark something changed. And I began to read between the lines. I started to read Manet’s questions and responses in precisely how the narrator (whomever it happened to be at the time) responded. And then Manet took on a life of her own. A life, directly affected by my depiction of her.

Even though I couldn’t see her exact words, I got the gist of them—and then my imagination took hold. See, in my story she was both sarcastic and passionate. She used sarcasm to cope with her life unraveling but was passionate about discovering the truth. Once I got a feel for Manet—once my imagination began to fill in the gaps the author had left—the story took off. And I didn’t even think of abandoning it again.

While it’s possible that this was a terrible way to write a story, I’m chalking this up as an innovative idea. Now, I’m not sure it would’ve made an effective novel (being a bit vague and out there), but for a day’s read, I’d say it worked. It could certainly come across as a lazy way to tell a story, or a hard way that didn’t work; but it worked for me. And my version of Manet wouldn’t’ve been the same as everyone else’s. The main plot is written—but how you arrive there changes depending on how your opinion of who exactly Manet is. Does that make any sense?

TL;DR

Though it’s a bit of a slow build and the writing style takes some getting used to, the Seventh Perfection was one of my favorite novellas of the year thus far. With a lead that never speaks—but is only spoken to, told entirely through the words of the people she converses with—it is up to the reader to read between the lines, using hints and clues, along with their own bias and preference, to determine Manet’s very words. In my version she was passionate but sarcastic (which might tell you something about me), but in someone else’s version she might be cold and dismissive, or warm but skeptical. While the Seventh Perfection is very much something of Daniel Polansky’s creation, and he tells a complete tale—I felt something of myself in the story at the end, and I could not help but wondering where the story went from there.

Hopefully this (more or less) makes sense. If not, I guess you’ll have to read it to find out more! Or, if you’d prefer, head over to Re-Enchantment of the World to find a much more positive review, and take it from there.

In the Shadows of Men – by Robert Jackson Bennett (Review)

Novella

Horror, Supernatural

Subterranean Press; August 31, 2020

120 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

In the desolate wastes of West Texas, In the Shadows of Men finds two brothers down on their luck, looking to cash in on the oil boom. To do this they need to renovate the old Moon and Stars Motel, sold to them by a cousin who wanted nothing to do with the place. As the younger Pugh and his brother, Bear wade into the wreck, they find its dusty halls and empty rooms strangely comforting, at least at first. But after a while, little Pugh begins to notice a disquiet about the place. Apparitions haunt his dreams; a looming man in white, young Mexican women, and an almost palpable feeling of lust and desire. Soon these thoughts begin to infect more than just his dreams—and that’s when things get stranger still.

The brothers find a hatch in one of the rooms: a steel door padlocked from the outside. As neither can discern the combination lock, they try to forget about it and move on. But once unearthed, it proves to be a mystery that just won’t die. Especially when the local sheriff comes by, teasing them with information on the history of the place and its owner—their great-uncle—Corbin Pugh.

Their own father was a devil of a man, but supposedly his uncle was something else entirely. What kind of man was Corbin Pugh, and what was the secret he was hiding? And how badly do the brothers want to find the truth, when it means they can never unlearn it?

My first question is what kind of person would think that moving to Texas would solve all their problems?

Well as they’re both from Texas, I guess this point is moot. West Texas is far removed from Houston, which the younger Pugh has just left. The story takes place in a small, lonely town, a suitable setting for just such a ghost story. And while little Pugh isn’t a terrible narrator, he’s not not the best lead, either. In fact, as neither brother is a conversationalist, the story often skips ahead days or weeks at a time, even after unearthing some new piece of the puzzle. While he’s pegged as the less inquisitive of the two, Bear seems to be more interested in solving the puzzle than his brother, who typically finds something curious and then goes and doesn’t think about it until a week later. Who finds a golden puzzle piece only to wait until a week later to see where it might fit?

Though the stoicism of the narrator works against the story, I felt it also prolonged the mystery in a way, which helped the atmosphere surrounding it. There was a greater sense of anticipation, a bigger building of tension. Though while the build was more enjoyable, I would’ve liked it to’ve been longer, or more intricate. Also, the conclusion itself was slightly underwhelming. So, yes, it hurt in some ways, but helped in others. All in all, the story evened out. Definitely a good read—though it didn’t leave much of a lasting impression.

On an unrelated note: I really hate when we don’t learn the narrator’s name. We learn his brother’s name, his uncle’s, his wife’s and daughter’s—but not his own. Annoying. And harder to write a completely coherent review.

TL;DR

In the Shadows of Men was an entertaining enough read, considering a sped through it in less than a day. It’s the mystery, if nothing else, that drove me through it, as neither the story nor the premise are particularly original or interesting enough to carry all the weight. But a dark tale, full of supernatural elements, a mystery that needs solving, and a man whose life is in desperate need of an escape—all combine to make this an enjoyable (at least in some ways) horror-thriller. It’s a good, quick read, just don’t expect it to leave much of a lasting impression.

And They Were Never Heard From Again – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Love the cover, courtesy of Jenny Zemanek.

Yarnsworld #0

Novella, Fantasy, Faerie Tale

Amazon Digital; February 21, 2019

41 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

And They Were Never Heard From Again is a teaser tale from They mostly Come Out at Night author Benedict Patrick. This tale—or tales (if you get the omnibus version)—can act as an introduction to Yarnsworld, without getting the reader too attached to any one character or place. See that’s the thing with Yarnsworld—the stories jump around, like Discworld. So you’ll have stories set in the same world, but often none of them will share characters. This novella serves as a glimpse into the world, but don’t expect to be hearing from the denizens of this short anytime soon.

I mean, especially with the title and all.

The story centers on two brothers. The live in a little town, surrounded completely by forest. Each night the townsfolk lock themselves away in their cellars, fearful at what the night will bring. For every villager knows the stories—each one more bloody than the last. Of what lurks in the darkest corners of the wood. Of what more comes out at night. And of what happens when someone encounters one of these creatures. Hint: it’s in the title.

There is but one nightly visitor of the forest not feared: the Magpie King. Myth and legend and ruler wrapt into one, he patrols their forest searching out the lost, the vulnerable, the beasts that lurk and prowl. Each he deals with in turn. Tad loves the tales, especially the Magpie King’s. But there is one that he loves more than any other—that of the Bramble Man. The terrifying beast that Tad himself invented, and whose legend he’s spread far and wide, despite his five years. Felton cares little for these stories. Tad’s older brother is more interested in a certain farm village, beyond the forest’s reach. A certain village, with a certain girl. But when Felton whisks his little brother off on an adventure to court said girl, he forgets two important details. One, the road is long, and night is never far away. And two, sometimes stories are just stories, but other times they can take on a life of their own.

I was pretty much captivated with this tale. The setting, the dark vibe, the people that lock themselves in, the many faerie tales of Yarnsworld. I’ve never finished They Mostly Come Out at Night, but there were extenuating circumstances—when I was reading it, I quite liked the vibe, the fables, though it did reek a bit of inexperience. And They Were Never Heard From Again was just enough to make me want to dive back in, something to whet my appetite. The ending, however, I didn’t care for. But I won’t spoil it. Sufficient to say it’s a resolution I wouldn’t’ve used, and leave it there.

If you’re interested, give it the tale a try. The kindle version is free right now, so there’s nothing to lose. If you enjoy it, you can even pick up an omnibus of shorts from Yarnsworld free, direct from the author. And if you enjoy that as well, you can get into his proper novels in the world. Or, you could check out his Kickstarter on now—he’s on Book #5 of Yarnsworld, To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl—there’s even an option to pick up his complete works, if you’re in a gambling mood. Or if you’re completely sold. Otherwise, it’s cool—there’s always more out there to read!

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Novella, Standalone

Scifi, Space, Adventure

Harper Voyager; September 3, 2019

134 pages (PB)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a novella by Wayfarers author Becky Chambers, set in a future Milky Way, where a small group of scientists have escaped the bounds of our solar system in the hopes of exploration and discovery. It’s a short yet sometimes dense read, with equal parts science and fiction, both of which shone brightly. While it doesn’t feature quite the same level of immersion featured in her core series, To Be Taught If Fortunate still managed to tug at my heart-strings, while occasionally sending a cascade of chills down my spine. But just because I loved it doesn’t mean you will too.

Ari is one of four scientists that make up Lawki-6, a extrasolar mission to Zhenyi (that dgen-yee, or jen-yee, if you’re interested) a fictional red dwarf system approximately 15 light years from Earth, sent to explore and document the four planets within the star’s habitable zone. Thanks to a revitalized space program, combined with a revolutionary method of engineering evolution, humanity can not only visit these worlds within one lifetime, but can also survive the experience. “Somaforming” uses slow-release biological mutations to subtly alter the human body so that it can survive exposure to these worlds. Sub-light engines reduce the flight time to 28 years, while suspended animation slows the aging process to just two. When Ari was born, it had been over 55 years since humanity sent anyone into space. Her generation sought to change that. And hey—why not aim big?

Ari, as the mission’s flight engineer, is assigned to recording the voyage and its discoveries for transmission back to Earth. The others—Jack (geologist), Chikondi (biologist), and Elena (astrophysicist)—have equally import missions, but all deal with the data. Ari helps out in each area, but her primary duties include tending the spacecraft and recording the story. TBTIF is essentially her story.

While TBTIF is in and of itself a story of adventure and discovery, it also represents a major trial for each of its characters. Imagine leaving Earth with the intention of returning—in 80 years. Everyone you have ever known or loved will be dead. The places you recognize, the foods you eat, the stories you enjoy might all be gone. Your team of four will spend most of the next century literally light years away from anything or anyone familiar. There will be wonders, yes—as you see things no human has ever set on eyes, set foot on extrasolar worlds, experience the new and the unknown in every waking moment. But there will also be hardship; struggle, loneliness, heartache, depression, more. Now imagine that even the people that sent you here—the OCA—might potentially have forgotten you. You are alone. Well and truly alone.

What would you do?

TBTIF features a heavy dose of science, too much for some people. When done in a casual, almost flippant style, it can be hard to take in—this is why I have so much trouble reading Alastair Reynolds or Carl Sagan; two people who definitely know what they’re talking about, only can’t seem to understand how to relay it to their audience. Becky Chambers takes the Neil deGrasse Tyson approach instead: simplifying down the language enough to try to explain it to those not versed in the more technical science, while likewise explaining it in technical terms. While I loved this approach (both of them, as in a past life I had thoughts of becoming a physicist), not everyone is going to. If you like your scifi science-light and fiction/action heavy, this might not be for you. It’s one reason I have trouble with military scifi—I like some innovation in my militia, and a decent dose of science in my science fiction.

The book is divided into four parts—Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum—one for each of the four planets visited. There is an overarching plot, but the story itself is one of discovery. Both for and within the crew themselves. The adventure was a big allure, if I’m honest. I adored the descriptions and the exploration. The science, the struggle, even the plot. Not that the plot is bad, mind, it’s just a little more subtle and less-involved than some other stories. As the team visits each world, the story changes. What united them on one planet may divide them on another. But they are pretty close knit. Though the novella deals primarily with exploration and discovery, the plot centers around its characters. And the characters are truly its greatest strength.

I had only a slight issue with the beginning and end, but can’t get into it because of possible spoilers. It just wasn’t something I expected, let’s say. The only thing this did was ruin a perfect rating—nothing more.

TL;DR

If you like your scifi with a heavy dose of science, To Be Taught, If Fortunate may be the book for you. While the novella tells a story laced with exploration and adventure and scientific discovery, the plot focuses strongly on its characters. Ari—as the narrator—draws major screen time, but Jack, Elena, and Chikondi get more than enough that you’ll learn their strengths and weaknesses throughout the near-hundred and a half pages. You’ll see them at their best, and at their worst. You’ll exult at their elation, tear up at their despair. I did, at least. Hopefully y’all like it, too.

Sea Change – by Nancy Kress (Review)

Novella, Scifi

Standalone

Tachyon Publications; April 24, 2020

192 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 Tachyon and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The year is 2032. A decade earlier, an event known as the Catastrophe rocked the world. One private company’s biopharmed drug caused several the deaths of several children and fanned the flames of resentment already burning against genetically modified foods. In the fallout from the poisoning, protests rage, concluding in GMOs being banned. Ten years later, global warming is no longer debatable. Sea levels have risen, drought and famine rocked the globe, temperatures soar as the ozone slowly fades. Some few still use GMOs, but they are labeled terrorists and are hunted. But these radical outlaws may yet save the world.

Renata is an operative of one of such ecoterrorist cells, from an organization just referred to as “Org”. These brazen men and women work to save the world from itself, artificially engineering crops that will resist disease, flourish with limited water, even grow in salt water. Renata—known as Caroline Denton now—has lived many lives, but this is the most important. This is a cause she will rally behind, a cause she will die for.

Which she may very well have to.

A mole is in the Org, and no one is above suspicion. At only four to a cell, there is very little blame to go around. Renata knows everyone, but trusts no one, for as she keeps secrets of her own from the Org, she assumes they do likewise. And as secrets from her past and personal lives begin to bleed around those from her secret life, she will be confronted by a choice. One that will force her to choose where her loyalties lie, and what she truly desires. In the end, she will visit the one place she can never escape—to the Quinault Nation, the site of her son’s death—looking for answers.

I was presently surprised with just how much I enjoyed Sea Change. Though hardly perfect, it’s a pretty good read; the story begins in the present before jumping back and forth between it and the ghosts of Renata’s past. It does this until maybe the halfway mark, whereupon Renata’s past starts showing up in the present. I was able to cruise right through this—with never a dull moment. While it didn’t drink me in—with details missing or absent, description fuzzy—it never lacked encouragement to read on.

The story is probably its strongest asset; between that of the Org and Renata’s own, hers’ easily won out. But in the end her own story and theirs’ became intertwined. Actually, I guess they always had been. It’s really Renata’s story we’re reading—it’s just that the Org is the life she wants, what she’s most invested in.

Despite bearing the title “Sea Change” and much of the book taking place in and around Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula, there is precious little about sea change. It’s mentioned early on that the sea level has risen, causing the tribe to move further inland, away from the sea. And that’s pretty much it. Nothing is said about Seattle, which sits on the ocean. Nothing about the rest of the world, or how the rise in ocean levels has changed it. In fact, there’s little enough present about the fate of the world at all. Yes, yes, we’re treated to some background on the Catastrophe, the standing of the US, a bit about climate change—but little more.

Honestly, I found the premise surrounding “the Catastrophe” a bit underwhelming. With the pandemic going on, I expected a near apocalyptic event: a great famine, flooding, earthquakes, a virus, something—but it’s just a single genetically modified drug. That kills a handful. Sure, this kicks everything else off, as GMOs even in this day and age are controversial. But it’s not… well, comparatively, I’m not sold on its sheer earth-shattering consequences. Could happen though, I guess.

TL;DR

With adequate characters, a sub-standard setup, and a vaguely eco-thriller backdrop, I really didn’t expect much of Sea Change after the first chapter. I was surprised, then, when the story took off and drank me in. While there’re several reasons I could criticize it (and DO, if you’ve read the above), the fact is I enjoyed the story, especially Renata’s. And since her story is basically the one told—not the GMOs or climate-change thriller we began with—that’s actually a good thing. In fact, I was so invested in this story by the end I was hoping it might continue on for a bit, but alas, t’wasn’t to be. Though, if you don’t enjoy the story like I did, it might be worth DNFing this and moving on. Because, while Renata tells a good tale, it’s really about her, not the world.

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.

Two Bits: Slab City Blues – by Anthony Ryan

Slab City Blues #1

Scifi, Cyberpunk, Mystery, Novella

Smashwords; April 1, 2011

35 pages (ebook)

1.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

An early work of Anthony Ryan—I believe his first published works—are the Slab City Blues. I got an omnibus edition from the author himself; it’s taken a while for me to get around to them. However much I tend to hate on everything that isn’t Blood Song—it all could be much, much worse. But then, this is an early work. Remember that.

Welcome to the Slab, a back alley of a station where the rats and trash piles grow big but the people only get older and uglier. There’s a stranger in town, but why he’d want to visit doesn’t make sense. No one visits the Slab. But this stranger is here for a reason. He’s killing assassins, with tooth and claw.

It’s up to Inspector Alex McLeod to find him. Detective, war vet and reluctant widower. 2,199 murders in the Slab a year and only 5% go to him. If only it was so easy to let his wife go. But she’s still around, which is impressive, her being dead and all. Maybe he’ll finally be strong enough to let her go. Or maybe not. Thing is, Alex’s no saint, and he can’t do everything.

It reads like a Richard K. Morgan story, where the reader is thrown in the deep end—no explanations, no hand-holding—just the story and the action and the slang and lingo and they have to piece everything together themselves. Well, for the most part Morgan pulls it off, but Ryan fails to. Why? Possibly because his intro to the world is under a hundred pages. Like, way under. I was only just wrapping my head around everything when it ended. And it ended suddenly.

As stories go, Slab City Blues #1 wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t very good. Again, this had a lot to do with the length. Built around a hard-boiled, ex-mercenary, current detective that gets results but plays by his own rules—well, you see where this is going. Action heavy. I mean, the lead does his detective thing, a little, but it’s mostly about the action. Which is a shame. I would’ve liked to see a little more effort go into everything. The story is straightfoward: Point A to Point B, with very little in-between. And very little recap necessary. I guess that’s why half a page after we stumble onto the truth, the book ends.

I couldn’t get around to caring about the main’s relationship with his wife. She’s been dead for years and currently inhabits a simulation, which essentially is stealing her from death. For now. It’s not well explained, only that they’re fighting about it. And have been for a long time. Again, maybe if the story was longer, but whatever. I really think the author should’ve left it out, but I suppose he wanted to try to humanize his lead. But it doesn’t work. Especially since his lead isn’t human. This is just touched on briefly and then abandoned. Which, is frustrating.

Oh, and some of the language is… outdated? Like, some people are called straight “oriental” and other places where it’s “two Chinese were” doing something and… I dunno. It really could’ve been cleaned up.

TL;DR

Heavy on lingo, short on conclusions. Okay, okay, I guess we technically concluded the story. Then skipped through the bit where we tie everything together nicely and shot right to the emotional conclusion of the character’s arc. Which we did in a couple sentences. It was… it was almost as if the author ran out of time. Or couldn’t be bothered. Because who really runs out of time on a thirty page story? Especially when he took so much time setting the world up. Doesn’t take too long to read, though I’m not saying that’s a good thing. The best that I can say about Slab City Blues #1 is it’s not… horrible. It’s just not good. My copy was free, so I didn’t lose much by reading this. You can buy the first one for a buck, but I wouldn’t. Dunno whether it’s worthwhile to buy the collection, but I’ll update you after I read #2 (A Song for Madame Choi) and maybe 3. Til then, I guess.

Two Bits: The Penitent Damned – by Django Wexler

Novella of the Shadow Campaigns #0

Novella, Fantasy

June 17, 2013

20 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

It begins with a discussion between the Last Duke and his assassin. A thief is coming to steal something very valuable, and they must be ready. But what is the item in question, and its importance to the thief? More so, the thief himself is an unknown. What abilities does he possess, exactly, and why would a careful man like him take on a dangerous mission such as this? To answer these questions, they must capture him.

Or her.

Alex is a master thief. And a master thief must have a masterful job before them. Anything less decays their skills and puts their talent to waste. And this job must be a masterwork. Anything less and she’ll die horribly. Even might die if she does everything perfectly—which means that Alex will cheat. Just a little.

I’ve not yet read any of the Shadow Campaigns, but I may have to remedy this very shortly. I have the first book sitting around somewhere (I think) and this glimpse into its world has me hungry for more.

A short, but lovely little read. Fast paced, thrilling and packed with heart-pounding action. I raced through it—shame it wasn’t longer. The magic system seems interesting; and while not new, isn’t the cliché version of point-and-shoot that just anyone can come up with on their day off. The surprising thing is that the characters showed depth. In a twenty page novella! While it wasn’t great depth, that can hardly be expected. But it did hint at more. Yes, I may have to read the Shadow Campaigns soon.

Recommended. You can read it for free here.