Review

A Gathering of Doorways, by Michael Jasper

A little while back I received a review copy of A Gathering of Doorways [B&N | Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon] by Michael Jasper.  Mike is someone I’ve known online almost since I started writing.  He’s a good guy, and a very good writer.  (See my reviews of The Wannoshay Cycle and his excellent collection Gunning for the Buddha.)

In Doorways, Gil and Melissa and their son Noah are trying to make a living on their new farm, despite the strange, toxic water slowly encroaching onto their land.  One of Jasper’s strengths is his characterization, making Melissa and Gil not shining fantasy heroes, but real people with real flaws.  Their marriage is already strained following the stillbirth of their second child, and then Noah wanders into the forest and disappears while Gil was supposed to be watching him.

Much as I wanted to see Gil and Melissa working together, that would be the easy route.  The anger and fear between husband and wife as they each try to find their son was painfully real.  As usual, Jasper’s cast of secondary characters were equally engaging, with their own flaws and hidden motives and conflicts.

Five-year-old Noah, on the other hand, never quite clicked for me.  It felt like Jasper was trying too hard to make him childlike, uses words like “kest” for quest, and following logid that didn’t quite ring true.  It felt like an adult trying to write a child instead of a real child, if that makes sense.

I liked the surreal Undercity, the nightmarish fairy tale world beneath the forest.  It’s disturbing as heck, treading that dark fantasy line between the fantastic and the horrific.  But I didn’t feel like I was seeing or learning enough about the Undercity to understand it.  For much of the book, it’s a vague danger.  I don’t understand how things work or what’s really at risk.

Eventually, we discover what’s going on in the Undercity — the power struggle, the reason the poisons are leaking out into the world above, and so on.  But I wanted to get more of that sooner.  Not the whole picture, perhaps, but I needed more to ground me in this world and make it real for me.

You can find more about the book at Jasper’s web site, or read a longer excerpt at BSCReview.

I’m not a big dark fantasy reader, and I suspect fans of that genre would enjoy the book.  If you’re less into the dark side of the genre, I’d probably steer you toward The Wannoshay Cycle first.  Jasper’s a good writer; I just don’t know if I was the right audience for Doorways.

Books Read

Haven’t posted any book reviews lately.  Shame on me!  Must remedy this…

First up, The Secret History of Moscow [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] by Ekaterina Sedia.  From the synopsis:

“Galina is a young woman caught, like her contemporaries, in the seeming lawlessness of the new Russia. In the midst of this chaos, her sister Maria turns into a jackdaw and flies away – prompting Galina to join Yakov, a policeman investigating a rash of recent disappearances.”

If you’re looking for quick-paced, action-heavy fantasy, this probably isn’t the book for you.  If you’re looking for deep characterization and a much richer cultural background than your average American fantasy novel, I’d definitely recommend it.

Not a cheerful book, but I enjoyed it a lot, particularly the characters from Russian folklore.  I think the Celestial Cow was my favorite.  Sedia has a beautiful writing style, and it’s so refreshing to read something different.

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Next up, CodeSpell [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] by Kelly McCullough.  This is the third book about Ravirn, descendant of fates and magical hacker extraordinaire.  CodeSpell continues where the last book left off, with Raviern working to restore Necessity while trying to survive a new and powerful enemy.

These books are in many ways the yin to Sedia’s yang.  Short, fast, and fun.  I zip right through them, enjoying the ride immensely.  With that said, I didn’t think this one was quite as good as the previous book, Cybermancy.  Cybermancy felt like it had a clearer plot, and the issues surrounding Persephone made that book far more powerful to me.  In CodeSpell, I didn’t feel as emotionally invested in saving Necessity.

I did enjoy seeing Ravirn’s development. It was interesting to see McCullough show how his growth affected his relationships.  Zeus was fun to meet in this one, and of course I always enjoy Melchior the webgoblin.

If you like my goblin books, I think there’s a good chance you’d like this series.  And if you enjoyed the first two Ravirn books, go pick up CodeSpell.  I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in #4.

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Currently reading Michael Jasper‘s book A Gathering of Doorways [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy].  Like much of Jasper’s work, this is a modern-day fantasy with a cast of vivid, flawed, gritty characters.  No pretty quests here.  Gil and Melissa are a farming couple whose marriage is already in trouble.  When their son Noah goes missing in the Undercity, they each set out to try to save him.

I’ll have more thoughts on this one later.  For now, I’m enjoying learning about the Undercity, though I wish I could have gotten more information earlier in the book.  The strained relationship between Gil and Melissa is painful, but believable.  I don’t think it’s my favorite Michael Jasper work (I’d probably reserve that for The Wannoshay Cycle), but I’m most of the way through and hoping to finish it up before heading to ConFusion.

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Your turn.  If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  And what else has everyone been reading lately?  Any recommendations for the rest of us?

Avatar

Given all the buzz about Avatar, I really wanted to see this in the theater. Of course, thanks to that same buzz, I had a pretty good idea what to expect: beautiful effects coupled with a relatively unoriginal story.

There’s been a lot of criticism about this one.  Over at i09, Annalee Newitz  criticizes it as a white man’s guilt movie. Others describe it as a mutant love child of Ferngully, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and the Smurfs.

Valid points, but they miss one very important question: All those mind-blowing special effects, and your subtitles are in Papyrus font?  Really?

Moving on to more serious (and spoilery) thoughts, in no particular order… More

Winners and Sherlock Holmes

So the book giveaway ended up with 66 comments on LJ, 15 on Facebook, and 26 on the WordPress blog.  I used a random number generator to pick three winners.  Congratulations to:

Heidi Santavuori
seldear
sweetlycorrupt

I’ll be getting in touch with the three of you about the details.  Thanks to everyone who entered!  (And for those who want to check out the books but don’t want to wait for my next giveaway, might I suggest putting in a request at the local library?)

Anyway, on to the movie chat.  Amy and I went out on a real, live date yesterday to see Sherlock Holmes.  (Pop quiz — is it a good idea or a bad idea to take your wife to a movie that has Jude Law and a topless Robert Downey Junior?)

My first complaint is that the whole thing is just a ripoff of House.  I mean, really.  Holmes is just House without the limp, and his sidekick Watson is totally Wilson.  Come on, they barely even changed the names!!!

Seriously, I enjoyed it.  Didn’t think it was the most brilliant film of the decade, but it was a fun romp.  I’m not an avid reader of Doyle, so I can’t say how true the film stayed to the book, but it worked for me.  I do wish we had seen a little more of Holmes’ deductions over the course of the movie instead of getting the whole thing explained in one lump at the end, but I understand why they decided to tell the story that way, trying to keep the audience in suspense.

My biggest complaint … involves spoilers. More

The Enchantment Emporium, by Tanya Huff

Happy news!!!  The Mermaid’s Madness [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] was the #1 paperback bestseller at both Mysterious Galaxy and Uncle Hugo’s–two wonderful and well-known SF/F bookstores–for the month of October!

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I just finished reading The Enchantment Emporium [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] the latest novel by Tanya Huff.  I consider myself a pretty big fan of Huff’s work.  She was doing awesome urban vampires when Stephenie Meyer was still learning to type. I love her Keeper series, her military SF … yeah, I’m a fan.

In many ways, The Enchantment Emporium feels like a typical Huff book.  You’ve got the strong female protagonist, Allie Gale, a witch who inherits her grandmother’s shop when grandmother disappears.  You’ve got fun, interesting secondary characters popping up.  You’ve got the snappy dialogue, the humor, the Canadian setting, and all of the little touches that make a good story even more fun to read (I loved the yo-yos!)  Allie is away from her family for the first time, trying to find out what happened to her grandmother while dealing with an immanent dragon invasion and worse.

Warning — minor spoilers follow!

I’m still thinking about this one, and would love to hear from anyone else who’s read the book.  I think my biggest hesitation comes from the intertwining of sexuality and magic, and the way that’s written.  The Gale family of witches is … let’s call them highly liberal.  Like the royals of old, there’s a lot of inbreeding, mostly to keep the magic strong within the family.  I’m okay with that part of the story.  It makes sense, and it’s hinted several times that the Gales aren’t 100% human.  Different species, different taboos, right?

But then you have scenes of group spellcasting, where the males go rather staglike from so much power, and have to be brought back down, sexually.  I.e., “That was a big ritual.  I’d better do Bob to keep him from exploding.”

Like I said, I’m still thinking about it.  The characters are all written to be open and comfortable with the situation.  So what happens between consenting adult mostly-human witches shouldn’t be a problem, right?  But I guess the fact that magic essentially forced them into sex troubles me, and I wish Huff had gone a little deeper into that.

I’ve heard complaints that there isn’t enough explanation or exposition about the magic system, other dimensions, and so on, but I didn’t have that problem.  I think most experienced fantasy readers will be okay, but newcomers to the genre might be better off starting with one of Huff’s other works.

So if you’ve read the book, what did you think?  If you haven’t but read the whole post anyway, I still want to know what you think 🙂

Twilight, Part II

So I finished reading Twilight [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy].  It was a better book than I expected, though I certainly wasn’t blown away.

In brief, Twilight is the story of Bella Swan, a high school girl who falls in love with a vampire.  Then about 80% of the way through the book, some other stuff happens.

That structure was odd.  For 400 pages, this is a fairly typical teenage romance, except the boy happens to be a vampire.  Suddenly we have evil vampires chasing Bella and everyone’s fleeing and scheming and hunting and fighting.  It didn’t throw me out of the story, but I think the book could have been more effective had we seen how dangerous vampires could be a lot sooner.  Edward spends a lot of time trying to persuade Bella that he’s dangerous and she’s better off without him, but like Bella, I never really believed him. 

I mentioned in Twilight, Part I that it was a fast-paced read.  Don’t want to rehash that, except to say it holds true for the rest of the book.  Whatever strengths and weaknesses the book has, I kept turning the pages, and I finished it within a few days.

I was intrigued by what Meyer did with vampires, eliminating many of the traditional weaknesses.  Holy symbols?  Edward’s dad keeps a 300-year-old cross on the wall.  Sunlight?  Yay, sparklies!  Edward explains that the only real way to destroy a vampire is to rip it apart and burn the pieces.

Think about that.  Buffy would be out of luck in this world.  There’s no way a human being is going to be able to fight a vampire; the only one who can is another vampire.  (Or another equally powerful supernatural creature.)  Humans?  Helpless as insects.  The implications are powerful, but I didn’t feel like there was any follow through.  Maybe it gets brought up in later books.  But heck, if vampires are this indestructible, why  bother to hide at all?

As for Bella and Edward … yeah.  This is the part you’ve been waiting for me to rant about, right?  But I’m having a hard time judging Edward’s behavior the way I would a normal abuser.  Controlling?  Absolutely.  Creepy?  Oh hell yes.  Breaking into a teenage girl’s room every night to listen to her talking in her sleep?  The dude puts stalkers to shame.

But he’s not human.  He is, as the book stresses again and again, better and beyond human in so many ways.  He’s a century old, powerful and beautiful and unstoppable.  Why should he treat a human with any more respect than you or I treat a pet cat?  I like my cats, but I don’t consider it abusive to toss one off the counter.

This isn’t where Meyer was going with the book.  Edward’s behavior is glossed over as part of our whirlwind teen romance.  He’s treated as a normal human teenager, except when he’s not.  As a normal human, he’s an abusive, controlling creep.

Having been young myself, I can certainly understand Bella’s infatuation and obsession.  Been there, done that (though I cringe to think about it now).  I just wish Meyer had been more conscious of the dynamics she was writing.

There’s so much going on here, and the book seems blissfully unaware of it.  It ignores the implications of Meyer’s changes to vampire lore.  It glosses over the unbalanced nature of Bella’s relationship with Edward until the very end, when Bella decides she wants to be a vampire too.  (And why not?  There’s no downside!)  It shows us a jealous, controlling stalker and treats the whole thing as dreamy and romantic.  This is where I think the book fails.

Don’t know if I’ll read book two or not.  But in the meantime, please feel free to jump in with your thoughts and comments.

Twilight, Part I

One nice thing about surgeries — they give you lots of time to read.  I finished up The Soldier King on Thursday and started in on Twilight, as promised.

I started by checking the front matter.  This book is in its 47th printing in paperback (19th in hardcover).  Dang.  And I thought I was doing well when Goblin Quest went back for a 4th printing….

I’m about 25% through Twilight, and so far, the book is surprisingly readable.  It’s not great, but I haven’t tried to gouge out my eyes with a spork yet either.

It reminds me of Harry Potter: it’s a quick, easy read; our young protagonist leaves one life and enters another, more magical one where they’re amazingly popular; it has lots and lots of pages…

Several people commented that Bella Swan is very much a Mary Sue, and I can see that.  She complains about how she’s so unpopular, and in the meantime she’s go no less than four–maybe five by now?–boys sniffing after her.  There’s a wish fulfillment feel to the story, which I imagine is a lot of the appeal–just like in Harry Potter.

We’re only beginning to get into the Edward revelations, but I can already see where the dynamics of Edward/Bella are troubling, to say the least.  So far, we’ve already seen some radical mood swings from Edward, as well as seriously controlling behavior (physically dragging Bella into his car being the most blatant so far).  Pulling her away from her friends to sit alone with him at lunch isn’t by itself a pattern of isolating behavior, but I’ll be curious how many more warning signs we’ll see from Edward.

Mostly, Twilight does what a lot of successful SF/F books seem to be doing these days: it makes the fantastic more accessible.  Like Harry Potter, it starts in our own world and grounds the reader before bringing in the fantastic elements.  It reaches beyond the hardcore SF/F readers, to whom the first 125 pages will be not only familiar but even a bit boring.  Yes, we get that he’s a vampire, and we’ve read this “discovery” process a hundred times before.  We’ve read it, but folks unfamiliar to the genre haven’t, which might explain why this is the book reaching a larger audience.

One final thought: this book looks like it was designed to be a quick read.  Larger typeface, big pages with larger margins, more spacing between the lines … physically, these pages were laid out in such a way that it makes you turn the pages faster.  I find that interesting.

375 pages to go.  More thoughts later I’m sure.  For now, have a Harry Potter pic, ’cause it amused me.

The Radio Magician & Other Stories, by James Van Pelt

I picked up James Van Pelt’s first short fiction collection, Strangers and Beggars, way back in 2002 at World Fantasy Con in Minneapolis.  Even then I was impressed at how much power he could pack into a few thousand words.  His latest collection, The Radio Magician and Other Stories [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], is even better.

It’s easy for fiction to become formulaic: Protagonist wants X.  Protagonist tries to achieve X by doing Y.  S/he fails, tries again, fails again, tries a third time, and either wins or loses it all in the climax of the story.  It’s a perfectly serviceable formula, one which produces perfectly serviceable fiction.

Van Pelt does so much more.  In “Where Did You Come From, Where Did You Go?” our protagonist and her friend don’t stop the bad guy.  They’re not active characters at all, being mere observers to the SFnal drama unfolding in their classroom.  Yet it’s still a tense, gripping story.  And the ending, in which they learn the truth and are left with one terrifying and unanswerable question, has more impact than many full-length novels ever achieve.

“The Inn at Mount Either” packs a similar punch, making the SF idea more central to the story as our protagonist explores a resort situated at the intersection of parallel universes.  Van Pelt doesn’t give us the easy ending another author might have written; he adds one more page, turning an interesting story into a full-strength gut punch.

He’s also playing with fascinating ideas.  What if artificial intelligence was not only possible, but became so cheap that everything could have AI chips?  What if space exploration could be outsourced, not to private companies, but through children’s collectible toys?  (Gotta find ’em all!) What if the universe were ending, and all that remained were two sentient machines orbiting a star?

Like any collection, some stories worked better for me than others.  I wasn’t as fond of “Of Late I’ve Dreamt of Venus,” mostly because I didn’t feel as connected to the characters.  “One Day, in the Middle of the Night” was an interesting premise, but I felt like Van Pelt was working too hard to fit the gimmick of the story.

But these were the exceptions, and even with these stories, I was still impressed by the ambition, the purpose and power of Van Pelt’s writing.  Let me put it this way: reading this book made me completely rethink the potential of the short story, and the things I want to accomplish the next time I sit down to write one.

The notes on my ARC say the book comes out in September, though Amazon lists it as already available.  I definitely recommend this one, both as a reader and a writer.  And while you’re at it, check out James Van Pelt’s home page, or go visit him on LiveJournal at jimvanpelt.

Just a Geek, by Wil Wheaton

It was early 2004.  I had just signed a deal with Five Star to publish Goblin Quest.  This would be my first published fantasy novel, hopefully bringing me one step closer to actually Making It As A Writer.  With Five Star being a small specialty press, I was on my own when it came to blurbs.  So I e-mailed a few people I knew.  On a whim, after reading one of Wheaton’s blog columns about gaming, I wrote him a quick e-mail.

Six hours later, I bounded away from the computer, grabbed my wife by the arms, and said, “Holy @#$%, Wil Wheaton said he’d read my book!”

Not only did he read it, he provided my favorite blurb ever, calling Goblin Quest “Too f***ing cool for words!”  He also hooked me up with John Kovalic, who went on to provide another blurb.

It’s hard to put into words how much that meant.  I was a nobody in the writing world. I had friends signing deals with major publishers, and I was with a press that might sell 500 copies if I was lucky.  I felt like a fraud, and I was terrified people were going to find out.

Having Wil Wheaton agree to read the book, and his follow-up e-mails saying how much he enjoyed it … well, it didn’t make the crazy go away, but it helped.  It helped a lot.

So now it’s five years later, and I finally got my hands on Wil’s book Just a Geek [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], a collection of blog posts and original material chronicling Wil’s decision to leave Star Trek, his efforts to find work in Hollywood, the struggle to balance career and family, and his eventual decision to give this writing thing a try. 

I’ve read his blog for years, so I knew he was a good writer, and I fully expected to enjoy the book.  What I didn’t expect was how much I would relate to the stories he shared.  How many of you writers out there can connect to this:

The hundreds of adoring fans I’d hoped to see did show up . . . when people like Kevin Smith and the cast of the short-lived Witchblade took up temporary residence at tables near mine.

Yep.  That could be me at one of several group booksignings I’ve done next to folks like John Scalzi or Mike Resnick.  Or how about:

I would often be one of the final two or three actors to be considered.  But consistently coming in second or third was actually worse than not making it past the first round of meetings.  It was like scaling Mount Everest, only to die within sight of the summit . . . over and over again.

I think every writer goes through this stage, where we’re getting “Almost, but not quite” rejections and going bugnut insane trying to figure out why we can’t make the cut when we’re so freaking close.

There were other pieces that jumped out at me.  Wil mentions legal battles with his stepsons’ father, and the overwhelming lawyer bills that come with them.  (Been there, done that.)  He writes about choosing bewteen going with his family on a vacation or staying home in order to make it to auditions.  (Some of you might remember when I missed half of my family vacation in order to make the deadline on Mermaid.)

The point is, it’s an aptly-named book.  There’s a blunt honestly to the writing.  You don’t feel like you’re reading about a celebrity; you’re reading about a guy who, like most of the folks reading this review, is just a geek (albeit one with 10,000 times as many Twitter followers as most of us).  If writing is about creating a connection between author and reader, then Wheaton is a damn good writer.

If you’ve read his blog, you know Wil Wheaton can write.  Just a Geek shows he can do it at book-length, tying individual stories and blog entries together into a larger story, one which starts with Wil Wheaton trying to Prove to Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake, and ending with Wil Wheaton, Author.

The book comes out in paperback at the end of this week.  Check it out.

Truthseekers: Welcome to Blackriver, by Rob St. Martin

I started reading Rob St. Martin‘s Truthseekers: Welcome to Blackriver [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy]  on the drive back from vacation.  I finished it fairly quickly, and immediately jumped back into revision madness, so it’s taken me almost a month to actually post a review.  Bad Jim.

This first Truthseekers volume is a collection of intertwined short stories centering around fifteen-year-old Ashley Bennett.  When Ashley’s parents are murdered, she has to leave Toronto and move to the small town of Blackriver to live with her older cousin Mark.  Over the course of the book, Ashley begins to uncover secrets about her parents, her cousin, and herself.

I joked with Rob that the book reminded me of Buffy, only without the angst of the last few seasons.  Imagine Sunnydale as a backwater Canadian town, and you’ll start to get a sense of the book’s vibe.  Blackriver is located on the junction of several ley lines, so naturally all sorts of supernatural trouble ensues.  Ashley and friends go up against vampires, witches, ghosts, secret societies, and cow tippers.  Evil cow tippers.  Not to mention the thing that killed her parents…

It’s a fun, easy read aimed at a YA audience.  (I enjoyed it too, but there are those who’ll argue whether I qualify as a grown-up.)  Ashley’s secret is a fascinating one.  I saw it coming, but that doesn’t matter; I still like the implications about what she is and what she can do.

I liked the format overall.  It was nice to be able to read in bite-sized chunks, advancing through the larger story one self-contained adventure at a time.  Though there were a few times I’d start in on the next story and think to myself, Wait, why aren’t you guys doing more about X from the last story?

I only had two complaints.  The first was that some of the stories started slowly.  There’s a pattern of following Ashley through some of the mundane aspects of her life before we get into the weirdness.  I can appreciate the contrast, but after a few stories, I found myself wanting to skip the first few pages and jump ahead.

The second issue was with the ending.  I didn’t expect the book to wrap up every single loose thread, but I find it ironic that while the individual stories are self-contained, the book as a whole leaves you hanging. Though perhaps that’s a good reason to mention that Truthseekers 2: Birthright [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is also available?

Every time I try to figure out how to wrap up this review, I keep coming back to the fact that it’s a fun read.  Likeable characters, a good balance between the serious and the not-so-much, and an overall arc that has me curious about book two.

Rob is also on LiveJournal as Talyesin, and has posted the first chapter of the book at http://talyesin.livejournal.com/501876.html  Check it out.

Jim C. Hines