Agents of Dreamland – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #1

Scifi, Horror, Novella

Tor.com; February 28, 2017

125 pages (paperback)
2hr 39m (audiobook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

Winslow, Arizona
2015

The events of the earlier week in Riverside still haunt the faceless agent known only as “the Signalman”, but he’s more worried about the woman he’s set to meet than any memories he could ever suffer. Still, the ranch house comes close.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an interplanetary probe just beyond the orbit of Pluto hints at something more worrying. If the Signalman is lucky, the two are isolated incidents. Coincidence. But the government doesn’t believe in coincidence. And the Signalman wouldn’t consider himself lucky. Hence his presence at the meeting in the first place.

And with the two coincidences comes a third: a mysterious, pallid woman outside of time and place. With her, comes the Signalman’s greatest worry. But also—humanity’s last hope.

A confusing start eventually gives way to an intricate science fiction tale of spores, zombie fungus, invading aliens, but ultimately presents its reader a conclusion featuring more questions to ask than it deigns answer, at least before the second installment.

While I ended up relatively enjoying this title, it certainly did not start out this way. In fact, the first time I picked up Agents of Dreamland, I ended up DNFing it due to lack of interest: I couldn’t figure out what was going on, where the story was headed, WHAT the story was at all, and why I was supposed to care. In the audio version, while these were still very real concerns, I could focus on something else (in this case Cyberpunk 2077), while I waited for the plot to come together.

Fortunately, everything did gradually converge, as the two very different story threads were eventually tied together with a third POV joining the mix. I’ve seen this approach work before—quite well, even—but it was an interesting choice for this particular format. A full-length novel, or one longer, would be a good choice, because it allows ample time for world-building and/or character development. A novella, on the other hand… never has much of either. So, when the story finally comes together, not only is there only 30% or so of an already undersized book left, but neither does it really feel like we’ve accomplished much more than subtle hints at the greater whole.

I guess that it’s a good thing that when the plot comes together, it actually hints at something so promising, so interesting. I’ve mentioned that nothing really comes out of this story, but it sets the stage for something greater come Book #2. That it begs more questions than it answers. Obviously I can’t get much into what this is because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that it involves zombie fungus, aliens, and a world that has not yet come to pass. Between the subtlety and vagueness, there’s not much of substance in Agents of Dreamland. But the world that it hints at—I want to see. I NEED to see. Something on par with the Last of Us or The Last Man with its detail or immersion or depth of field.

Another point in Dreamland’s favor is the ambience of the story. Even from the first—a dust-choked town, a 2015 diner with 1940’s vibes, a mysterious lead known only as “the Signalman”—it’s all so atmospheric. Say what you want about the story or its characters, from the very first scene I connected with this world. I could feel the dust in my eyes and on my skin, the sweat drying on my back and armpits. I could taste the stale, tepid Dr. Pepper. I could hear the relative quiet of the desert, the click-clack of the train. I could picture the lit cigarette, dirty suit, 40’s diner, hazy twilight. I’m not sure what I have to say about the world-building of Agents of Dreamland, but it has nothing on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ability to illustrate a scene. All the places we spent time in were as vivid as they were intricate and detailed. While I didn’t necessarily connect with the story, I connected so much with the world around it that it almost made up for it in the end.

TL;DR

Overall, Agents of Dreamland was an interesting, if not exciting beginning to the Tinfoil Dossier. The world itself is beautifully rendered, and hints at a deep, thoroughly thought-out plan for what’s to come in the series. Which is good, because the story of Dreamland itself fails to wow in any meaningful way. Only materializing with about a quarter of the text left, it does little more than introduce the reader to the world, before snapping the book closed on it. Despite this, I’m interested to see where the story goes from here. There’s promise of aliens, brain-fungus, and some sort of apocalypse in the future entry, Black Helicopters. That said, the reviews of Book #2 that I’ve seen are less than flattering, so it might well be all for nothing. Guess we’ll see.

When I bought the novella, it had the reasonable price of $4 for the ebook of a novella—though that’s now risen to $8. Which… ehhh. Not so great. I got the audiobook free, so that’s what I’d recommend doing if I were you. The 2nd entry in the series, Black Helicopters, is currently $7 for an ebook, which isn’t a lot better—though it IS about twice as long.

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.