The Emperor’s Railroad – by Guy Haley (Review)

The Dreaming Cities #1

Post-Apocalyptic, Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; April 19, 2016

173 pages (paperback)

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3 / 5 ✪

Quinn is a knight of the Angels. Armed with a six-gun and two swords—one for killing the living, another for killing the dead. Abney is one of the last two survivors of New Karlsville (his mother is the other), fleeing for the safe harbor of Winfort. Quinn has agreed to escort them there, for a price.

The world has changed—as you’ve likely gathered. The Great War changed everything. Turned cities to glass, and others to dust. But the world is even more dangerous than just that. The dead do not stay dead. The living don’t stay that way neither. There be Angels, and dragons.

The road to Winfort will be long and hard. But with Quinn by their side, Abney and his mother might just make it.

My second time through this one, and still I think that it took its sweet time getting moving. The world is quite nice when it starts rendering in, but again it takes its sweet time. It’s like a DOS prompt that takes forever to load properly, but once it does is quite enjoyable. Actually… yeah, the entire book is like a post-apocalyptic or fantasy DOS game. The main problem with it is that books aren’t used to being games, and so that first 50 pages where nothing really happens are more of a letdown. Which—if you’ve only got 170 pages to tell a story—is quite a long time to wait.

Okay, okay. SOME things happen in that first 50 pages. There’s the origin story of how all this began—told from Abney’s POV. Now, it doesn’t tell us what happened to New Karlsville. No, that comes later. It also doesn’t tell us Quinn’s story. It just tells us how Quinn and the two refugees meet. Which, to be honest, is a bit dry and a bit light on details.

Once the story gets going, however, it’s quite the tale. Set in quite the world. A fantasy meets post-apocalyptic setting, complete with swords, guns, trains, dragons, angels, and the undead. And there’s more too—some of which you’ll meet should you continue the series. In general, I found the second story preferable to the first, but you’ve got to start somewhere. And it’s good to meet Quinn before getting too far along with his story. Because while this is told from Abney’s POV—it’s Quinn’s story. And not a bad one at that.

The whole thing has kind of a Metro vibe to it (the games, not the books—so a perilous scramble through the apocalypse, not a metaphysical stumble through it), which isn’t a bad thing. Exodus, in case you’re wondering. And if ever you can come close to describing a Metro game in your stories, you’re doing something right.

TL;DR

It’s quite a quick read once you get into it. Quick, but enjoyable. I have the ebook version that I got for a buck; and I’d easily call that worth it. Recently I picked up a paperback from my local library, and it’s more than worth the time spent there. While the Emperor’s Railroad isn’t the best story you’ll ever read, most of that’s down to the sluggish start. I’d recommend it—in part because I know Book #2 is better than #1. While 3/5 means it’s not great, it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours by any means.

The series continues with Book #2 of the Dreaming Cities—The Ghoul King, at the moment the de facto conclusion to Quinn’s adventure. Guy Haley maaay return to the series at some point, but right now he’s busy industriously churning out 40K novels for the Black Library.

Book Review: Ex-Heroes – by Peter Clines

Ex-Heroes #1

Scifi, Zombies, Superpowers, Post-Apocalytic

Broadway Books; February 25, 2010

310 pages

4 / 5 ✪

I’ve been after Ex-Heroes for a while. I mean, zombies + superpowers + apocalypse = well, I suppose it’d be a bad thing, but for the reading of it, I’d say it’s all good. Peter Clines debut features all the big names of a world that has succumbed to chaos: Stealth, Gorgon, Regenerator, Zzzap, the Mighty Dragon, Cerberus. Essentially they represent the last, best hope for mankind. The rest comprises gangs, outcasts, and somewhere around 99% Exes (the pretty-much-zombies).

When the infection began it was expected to be mopped up in a week. After months of fighting, however, and the fall of the eastern seaboard, the heroes were left with little in the way of allies. The fall of the government, the army followed, and the last vestiges of civility set up shop in LA—transforming the area of several film studios/locations into “The Mount”, their final stronghold against the hordes.

A year into the apocalypse things are looking bleak. The South Seventeens have stepped up their attempts to take down The Mount. Ammo is running thin. Patrols into the city are bringing back not only essential supplies, but also news of more. Exes acting strangely. Roadblocks and traps. And more worrying, sightings of previous heroes; those that once bitten, succumbed to the Ex plague. Now they are little more than shamblers themselves. Albeit totally badass, superpowered ones. And all the while, it seems the South Seventeens have been consolidating power.

This was a pretty good read.

I mean, it went by quick: only about 300 pages, took me about a week as I was reading two other things at the time. A straightforward plot with little surprises, a little mystery, and mostly packed with fight scenes and dark realism. Not surprisingly St. George (the Mighty Dragon) stood out as the character I enjoyed the most. After him… probably a tie. Between Zzzap or Cerberus. But St. George… yeah, the dude has superpowers, but he’s as human as the rest beneath it all. Though he’s pretty much unkillable, he bears the emotional and psychological scars of survivor’s guilt. Of everything he’s seen go to shit over the years. And still he tries to be better. And maintains that the people around him—even the other heroes—should do the same.

The story features a back-and-forth between past and present, with each glimpse of the past taken through the eyes of one of the heroes. Their origin story, the outbreak of the plague, the fall of civilization, how The Mount came to be—I can’t say they weren’t interesting flashbacks. And yet they leave a lot to be desired. Somewhere between ending to soon and taking to long to begin again. It’s not like some other books (Porcelain Blade) where there’s a flashback every other chapter. They appear now and then, but usually don’t remain for too long. Interesting snippets of lore, yet little more.

I really don’t have anything all that bad to say about Ex-Heroes, except that it was over too quick, and possessive of nothing terribly life-altering. I will say the opposing gang had a very unfortunate name (the SS? Not the best choice). The concept was good, combining the zombie apocalypse with superhero fiction, two tried and true genres. But as a book, it wasn’t anything special, either. A good read with some interesting (although not very developed) characters and a straightforward plot with gentle twists.

Not a super complex story here. I mean, it ain’t winning any awards. But even so, it was a quick, entertaining read. And I’d definitely be interested in seeing where Clines takes the series from here. Hopefully he develops the characters more. Explores the pre-collapsed world. And some more post-fall locations. This book begins a pentalogy—a five-piece series. Ex-Heroes is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Ex-Heroes series continues with Ex-Patriots, released in 2011.

Note: I couldn’t find this at my local library (I live in a nowhere-adjacent locale), but managed to score a copy on the cheap. Think I paid about $4 for it, used. While I’d whole-heartily recommend supporting the author and buying a new copy, if you’re on a budget: Ex-Heroes has been out since 2010. There’re bound to be more than a couple used copies lying about. That you can pick up, for a good price. Or, if you can get to at your library, do! Libraries are great like that.