Red Sonja: Plagued by Chainmail Bikinis and Other Clichés

Red SonjaRed Sonja, Volume 1: Queen of Plagues by Gail Simone and Walter Geovani

Published: February 19, 2014
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Swords-and-Sorcery
Format: Digital
Length: 184 pages

I don’t have much experience with Conan the Barbarian or Red Sonja; my dad had a pretty sizable comic book collection when I was a kid, and I spent many an hour digging through it, but he didn’t have many comics from either series in his collection. I think there was maybe one over-sized Conan annual in the entire bunch, and that lone issue might have been my entire exposure to both properties. I never watched the movie adaptations made in the 80s because they looked TERRIBLE. However, when I saw that Gail Simone is the writer for the new Red Sonja series, I became intrigued even though I’ve never read any of her other work.

All this is to say up front that it’s possible I am not the right audience for this book. Simone writes in her introduction that she’s loved the character ever since she was a young comics reader, and as soon as she got the chance to work for Dynamite, writing a rebooted Red Sonja was her dream project. She’s enthusiastic about the title, found great female artists to illustrate the covers, and wrote the book so that it stands proudly on its own, separate from the Conan mythos. Simone’s Red Sonja sounds like the sort of thing that should leap off the page, but for some reason the book just felt inert and clichéd.

The Queen of Plagues bounces back and forth between Sonja’s origins and her attempt to protect the only king she’s ever respected – Dimath, who rescued her from gladiatorial slavery and to whom she pledged allegiance. Sonja is smarter, faster and more skilled at swordplay than her foes, but she is also an unrepentant drunk when wine is at hand.  When two young warriors, Nias and Ayla, find Sonja in the forest and ask her to come to Dimath’s aid, she reluctantly follows. However, when she arrives at Dimath’s court and agrees to lead his army, she soon discovers that her old friend, Annisia, is general of the opposing army. Annisia, who survived the gladiator pits at Sonja’s side only to go mad from guilt.

The story in this first volume of Red Sonja isn’t particularly deep or twisty. Sonja fights her foes and usually comes out ahead; if she occasionally fails, it is only a matter of time before she finds new resolve and returns twice as fierce. Simone relies on tropes that feel well-worn but for the fact that most of the characters are female, with male characters relegated to supporting roles. However, instead of breathing new life into hoary old clichés, Simone’s version of Sonja feels like it only satisfies the bare minimum of swords-and-sorcery storytelling.

I think my biggest problem with this book was that the dialogue is never more than serviceable, and as a result the characters fail to rise above their archetypes. I never got much of a sense of Sonja as anything other than a relentless warrior; her solitary quirk is her love of drink, played for (weak) laughs in what is an otherwise deadpan book. If any part of this book was extraordinary – plot, dialogue or characterization – it would be enough to raise it in my estimation, but unfortunately Simone just doesn’t deliver the goods.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Perdido Street Station: Words Upon Words, Worlds Within Worlds

Perdido Street StationPerdido Street Station by China Mieville

Published: July 29, 2003
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre(s): Fantasy, Steampunk, Weird
Format: Paperback
Length: 640 pages

After reading Perdido Street Station, I can’t decide what China Miéville loves more: feverish world-building or the sheer impenetrability of his prose, and I say that as someone who (occasionally) enjoyed the book. It took me a good six months to make it through that dense little tome, mostly because I only managed to read it in 30-50 page chunks about once or twice a month, and I have to admit that in the end I only finished out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

This was actually my second attempt at Perdido Street Station. I first bought it in 2003 and only made it about 50 pages in before putting it down for more than a decade. This time around, I gave it a bit more persistence, but it was never an easy book to pick up. Each of those 30-page sessions was hard-fought over the course of several hours, and I oftentimes found myself reading and re-reading passages just to make sure I’d fully comprehended their contents and meaning. I enjoyed many parts of the book, but I can’t help feeling a certain amount of exhaustion and relief after struggling to finish it for so long.

In broad strokes, Perdido Street Station tells the story of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, inventor and disgraced academic, and what happens when a disfigured garuda – a sort of half-man, half-bird creature – named Yagharek comes to his laboratory in New Crobuzon and asks Isaac to help him fly again. Yagharek is flightless, his wings removed as part of a brutal judicial punishment, and he’s travelled hundreds if not thousands of miles just to ask Isaac for his help. Yagharek’s gold is plentiful and Isaac is in need of a patron, so he soon sets off on a quest to restore the garuda’s flight. What Isaac does not know – cannot know – is that he will inadvertently set into motion a series of events that bring only nightmare, catastrophe and death to his city and everyone he knows and loves.

However, before the novel gets to the point where the plot kicks in, Miéville spends several hundred pages on setup, character development and a huge amount of world-building. If one of the characters visits a new neighborhood, Miéville includes a minimum of a few paragraphs describing how it looks, smells, sounds, pulses with life and interacts with the city around it. These passages are oftentimes beautiful, carefully drawn and incredibly dense, but over the course of the 600+ page novel, it becomes hard not to react with impatience when Miéville’s attention strays yet again to the architecture of his imagined city.

The idea is, of course, that New Crobuzon is another character in the story, but the problem is that Miéville seems intent on including too much of everything; the kitchen sink, a few bathtubs and maybe a swimming pool for good measure. Every new neighborhood has enough detail to support an entire storyline, but Miéville barely takes a breath before introducing even more obscure and bizarre details. What seems magical and fascinating for maybe a hundred pages or so becomes overkill when it just keeps happening past the halfway point of the novel.

Also, it doesn’t help that Miéville seems to delight in writing incredibly dense prose. I’m sure a large part of why I took so long to finish the book is that it felt like I was barely making any progress even though I would sit down and read for hours at a time. I was finally able to increase my pace a bit once the actual plot became clear, but at the same time I was a little disappointed to discover that all of Miéville’s baroque wordplay leads up to a relatively straightforward man versus monster story.

Ultimately, Perdido Street Station was a difficult book that I respected and sometimes liked but can’t help finding fault with as I think more about it. I’m glad I finally finished it so that I can mark it off my near-infinite list of unread books, but it will be a good long while before I pick up another one of Miéville’s books. Of course, there are at least three others on my shelves, waiting for me to read them.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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Vicious: One Weird Trick to Becoming a Super-Villain

Vicious by V.E. SchwabVicious by V.E. Schwab

Published: September 24, 2013
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre(s): Fantasy, Superheroes
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 55 mins

V.E. Schwab’s Vicious had a lot to recommend it: an eye-catching cover, rave reviews from authors I trust, and a premise that promises to toy with superhero and villain tropes in interesting ways. The problem is that I never really bought the way the main characters get their powers, and that ended up souring me on the book. It also didn’t help that Vicious seemed to have ambitions of subverting the genre but fell prey to some of its hoariest clichés.

Victor Vale and Eli Cardale are college roommates and unlikely best friends. Victor is an anti-social misfit and Eli has every appearance of all-American normality, but as they get to know each other, it quickly becomes clear that they share not only an ambitious drive to succeed but also a darkness boiling just under the surface. Their relationship comes to a crucial turning point when Eli starts working on a term paper examining the source of “extra ordinaries” or “EOs” – near-mythical human beings with super-powers – and Victor suggests they try to put Eli’s findings into practice.

When Eli brings up the topic of EOs, that is the first real hint we’re given that we are dealing with a world that isn’t quite our own. Eli mentions EOs and everyone in his class knows what he means, but the world of Vicious doesn’t seem to have the concept of traditional comic book superheroes and villains. EOs may exist, but they certainly don’t run around wearing capes or acting under flamboyant pseudonyms.

Honestly, I think this reveal is where I started having problems with Vicious. The world-building felt a little shaky at this point and things only got worse from there. After Eli announces his intention to write about EOs, it isn’t long before he theorizes that near-death experiences are connected to EO powers and Victor convinces him to test that out. Before you know it, they’ve performed a few incredibly irresponsible experiments and become super-powered under conditions that just feel trivial.

Eli and Victor’s experiments aren’t at all scientific or rigorous, and Schwab never provides an explanation for their powers that I found satisfactory. The only thing that made sense to me was that they must live in an alternate universe where anyone who almost dies comes back super-powered. That would create a lot of EOs, but doesn’t jibe with the way everyone in Vicious treats EOs as nothing more than a fanciful rumor until Victor and Eli start digging into the subject. Schwab tells us how EOs happen but never explains why, and that bothered me the whole time I was reading.

It’s a shame, really, that I got so hung up on the basic building blocks of this story, because Vicious was reasonably entertaining at points. The characterization was decent, the moral grey areas were impressively large, and the details of the world were tantalizing enough that I wanted to know more than Schwab delivered.

Vicious is a book with a few cool ideas that ultimately don’t pay off, but I do think it speaks to the potential of its author. I’ll be curious to see what else Schwab writes, and it’s possible I’ll give another one of her books a shot some day. Unfortunately, this one just wasn’t my cup of tea.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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Gamification and C-Monkeys: Corporate Double-Talk

Gamification and C-MonkeysGamification and C-Monkeys by Keith Hollihan

Published: October 22nd 2013
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Genre(s): Thriller, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 280 pages

Gamification and C-Monkeys are a pair of related novellas sold together as a “flip book” with a different cover on each side. The effect is clearly meant as a call-back to days when publishers sold slim, pulpy novels in bound pairs, and although both stories include familiar beats, Hollihan leavens each with modern ecological concerns and stylistic touches.

I decided to start reading these novellas thanks to a highly scientific method that involved skimming the first page of every review copy I have in my possession until I found one that hooked me enough to keep reading.

Gamification, a thriller about corporate espionage, offered just the right combination of spare prose and business jargon. I was soon caught up in the plight of the main character, a former corporate executive and current ex-con recently released from prison and struggling to make ends meet. When he begins working under-the-table for his old company cleaning up after the CEO’s ill-advised affair with a woman at a rival company, things start to get hairy.

Hollihan definitely knows his jargon. I’m pretty sure that if you turn this book sideways, a few inter-office memos and a quarterly report might fall out. He also has a pretty solid grasp of thriller conventions and pacing; the book starts out slow but steady until things inevitably begin escalating and Hollihan pulls the rug out from under his main character.

It was exciting reading, and I definitely enjoyed the experience, but the end of the novella left several story threads unresolved or unexplained, and I was admittedly a bit confused about who did what to whom and why. It felt a bit like Hollihan ignored motivations and explanations  in the name of surprise and excitement. It worked in the moment, but ultimately left me unsatisfied.

I assumed that C-Monkeys might shed some light on the parts of Gamification that remained unexplained, but I was sadly disappointed. At one point in Gamification, the main character is given a pulpy dime-store novel about a mad scientist on a mysterious island full of giant salamanders. C-Monkeys is essentially the expanded version of that novel’s summary.

Unfortunately, in expanding the story, Hollihan doesn’t bring much more to the table. The main character in C-Monkeys is a cipher with no backstory and no clear motivations. We are eventually told a bit more about who he is and why he might want to sneak on the island, but it comes late in the story and feels like an arbitrary info-dump instead of a shocking revelation. Honestly, nothing about C-Monkeys felt particularly surprising or remarkable.

I wanted to like Gamification and C-Monkeys more than I did. Both novellas were eminently readable, and Hollihan gets a surprising amount of entertainment mileage out of corporate espionage and the particulars of drilling for oil, but Gamification’s many twists add up to a whole lot of nonsense and C-Monkeys just feels unnecessary. I might be up for reading more of Hollihan’s work, but I can’t recommend this pair of novellas.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | ChiZine Publications | Indiebound

The Incrementalists: Plight of the Immortal Micro-Managers

The IncrementalistsPublished: September 24th, 2013
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hrs and 52 mins

The Incrementalists has a killer premise and a rave from John Scalzi on the cover, so I was understandably impatient to read it as soon as it came out. The book focuses on the members of a secret society that uses psychological manipulation to make small changes that hopefully have larger effects on the course of human history. This “meddling” is all in the name of making the world a “better than good” place. These Incrementalists, as they call themselves, have the benefit of several millennia of stored memories and history guiding them in their work. In fact, a large part of what makes their group work so well are the methods they use to pass down memories and maintain continuity over time.

All Incrementalists have a shared mental space they refer to as “The Garden”, where every member has an imaginary home of their own, used to store or “seed” memories, data and the psychological triggers required for mental manipulations. This combined with their ability to pass on memories and personalities from dead to new members makes them a formidable force when necessary. However, subtlety is the watchword for Incrementalists, and ethical considerations are always an important driver for every choice they make. Brust and White pepper in this world-building throughout, and although it does occasionally get a bit metaphysical, it’s easily the most interesting part of the book.

However, the meat of the story focuses on two Incrementalists in particular, Phil and Ren. Phil is the oldest continuous Incrementalist. Becoming an Incrementalist means being implanted with the memories and personality or “stub” of a deceased former member. When this happens, the two personalities vie for dominance. In Phil’s case, his personality has come out on top for longer than any other member of the group, which gives him seniority without necessarily making him infallible. Ren is a new recruit that Phil brings into the fold to replace the late Celeste, Phil’s tempestuous sometimes partner and former lover.

Ren is wide-eyed and ambitious, and surprisingly eager to join a strange cabal of semi-immortal meddlers, so it isn’t long before the recruitment process finishes and Ren finds herself implanted with Celeste’s stub. Naturally, that is when the shit hits the fan. Somehow the process doesn’t go through correctly, and instead of coming out the other end with all of Celeste’s history at her command, Ren has a hard time remembering who the hell this Celeste is everyone keeps ranting about. When the other Incrementalists start looking into the problem, they discover hidden sabotage and go into full-on panic mode. Accusations, manipulation, and attempted murder all come into play, and the group finds itself at a loss for the solution.

However, this is where the premise began unraveling for me. When I picked up the book, I had certain expectations that I’d be reading about a society of people spending their time manipulating the world around them. In practice, however, it turns out that most of the meddling involves nothing more than convincing Ren’s boss to put off a conference call so that she can stay focused on Incrementalist matters. Ren does meddle with a cocktail waitress at one point, but it doesn’t amount to anything of note. Other than that, the Incrementalists spend most of  their time dealing with a storyline that feels like nothing so much as metaphysical office politics. It’s a bit hard to care about a possibly corrupt secret society that does little more than manipulate its own members.

Then, of course, there’s the romance storyline. Shortly after Phil and Ren meet, they are in love. Part of it is the latent memory of Celeste influencing them both, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it feels like the characters go from strangers to passionate lovers in no time flat. It doesn’t help that I never really got much of a sense of either character as a person; they both felt a bit underdeveloped. Instead of feeling like a release or a rush of emotion, the romance scenes played more like passion by default.

Ultimately, although I found the premise intriguing, the plot wasn’t all that compelling. It is possible that my audiobook listening habits were part of the problem, however. I just haven’t been making time for audiobooks recently, so I listened in fits and starts over the course of a month. On the other hand, if the book had grabbed me, I’m sure I would have made more time to listen.

One more note for audiobook listeners: Ray Porter and Mary Robinette Kowal are both wonderful, talented narrators, but for some reason they use different accents for the same characters. A head-scratching choice and particularly confusing when the narrators switch in the middle of a scene.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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Crucial Listens: The Best Audiobook Experiences

I’ve had an Audible membership for a few years now, and although I’d enjoyed audiobooks before I started my membership, it wasn’t until I started listening regularly and widely to audiobooks that I began to understand how much difference a great audio production can make when it comes to reading. I’d argue that some books only truly come alive when you hear them read aloud; humor comes across more clearly, characters become more vivid, and good books transform into great ones.

The Blade Itself audiobook, read by Steven PaceyThe First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, read by Steven Pacey

The Blade Itself was one of the first books I picked up with a credit, and Steven Pacey’s performance blew me away. Like many epic fantasy series, The First Law has a huge cast of characters, and Pacey accomplishes the rare feat of giving each character a unique voice and accent that makes them immediately stand out. After a certain point, Abercrombie could have forgone character identification and I would always have known which character was speaking. It also helps that the series is bloody, subversive and thoroughly entertaining.

Redshirts audiobook, read by Wil WheatonRedshirts by John Scalzi, read by Wil Wheaton

If you’re going to tell a metafictional story about a starship crew that realizes they’re actually characters on a terrible sci-fi TV show, you really can’t pick anyone else to read it but Wil Wheaton. Luckily Wheaton isn’t just a former sci-fi TV star, he’s also an excellent narrator with a flair for reading comic novels like this and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Wheaton doesn’t do too much with character voices, but he understands the emotional core of this and other books I’ve heard him read, and I’d easily pick up any new book read by him on that criteria alone.

Bandits audiobook, read by Frank MullerBandits by Elmore Leonard, read by Frank Muller

I picked Bandits because it’s one of my favorite books by Leonard, but really anything read by Muller is worth picking up. He’s the perfect narrator for Leonard’s casts of characters on both sides of the law (but usually the wrong one). Muller growls and drawls with the best of them, giving Leonard’s minimalist prose the exact right amounts of menace and wry humor. I recently went on a Leonard listening spree, and Muller immediately became one of my favorite narrators.

Middlemarch audiobook, read by Kate ReadingMiddlemarch by George Elliot, read by Kate Reading

Middlemarch is a massive tome about life in a small British town at the turn of the century. One of the main characters, Dorothea, is a pious woman who enters into a loveless marriage with a shriveled old academic named Casaubon. It might seem intimidating and potentially dry, but it’s actually gently satirical, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully emotional. I feel like Reading’s arch delivery went a long way in aiding my comprehension and enjoyment of the book. Some of my favorite parts are her readings of Casaubon’s meandering writings. Until I listened to this audiobook, I would never have imagined that Middlemarch would become one of my all-time favorite books, but as soon as I finished, I wanted to listen to more classics.

Skippy Dies audiobook, read by a full castSkippy Dies by Paul Murray, read by a full cast

Most audiobooks have one or maybe two narrators, but Skippy Dies boasts almost a dozen men and women who play students, teachers and administrators at an Irish private school. The book is sprawling, and the huge cast of characters is well-served by the tag-team narration style. I couldn’t imagine reading this hilarious, sad story any other way.

The Night Circus audiobook, read by Jim DaleAnything read by Jim Dale

Best known for narrating the Harry Potter books and Pushing Daisies, Dale brings an impeccably British whimsy to everything he narrates. When I started my Harry Potter re-read, I decided to pick up the audio versions just so I could enjoy his narration. Dale’s narration is a perfect fit for anything with a bit of magic and humor in the mix.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: Fan for Life

FangirlPublished: September 10th, 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Genre(s): Young Adult, Coming of Age
Format: eBook
Length: 445 pages

Fangirl tells the story of twin sisters Cath and Wren from the start of their freshman year in college. Even though they are going to attend the same school, Wren unexpectedly decides not to room with Cath, throwing her sister for a loop. Wren, it seems, wants to break out and make a life of her own without her sister.

Wren is the outgoing one, easily fitting in at college and making new friends. Cath is painfully introverted, crippled with social anxiety that, among other things, drives her to eat protein bars in her room instead of going to the cafeteria because there are too many people and too many social pitfalls waiting for her there. Cath is too much in her own head, worrying about potential disasters and clinging to her only comfort zone – the world of Simon Snow fandom.

Cath, it seems, spends most of her free time writing Simon Snow fan fiction, but she’s not just any fan writer. In fact, she’s one of the most popular writers in the entire fandom, and she’s best known for her slash depicting a romantic relationship between Snow and his roommate/nemesis, Baz. Cath and Wren started out writing together, but as they got older, Wren stopped collaborating with her sister even as Cath’s star rose in the fan writer community. As the book opens, Cath is deep in the middle of writing her own alternate version of the upcoming eighth and final Simon Snow book.

Cath loves writing about Simon and Baz, loves writing so much that she signs up for a fiction writing class normally reserved for upperclassmen. Anyone who has ever attended a college fiction course can guess what kind of disaster is heading Cath’s way, so deep is she embedded in the world of fan fiction. That said, Fangirl is a thoroughly even-handed depiction of fan writing; Cath clearly writes her Simon Snow stories as an escape from the real world, but it’s also apparent that her prolificacy and storytelling skills only improve thanks to her constant remixing of the Simon Snow universe. Fangirl doesn’t condemn fan fiction, but does point to it as a stepping stone towards learning how to tell your own stories.

At its heart, though, Fangirl is a character study of a girl who I’m sure many socially awkward readers can recognize and identify with. As we slowly learn more about Cath’s relationship with her family members – her bipolar dad, her absentee mother, and her suddenly distant twin – she becomes a fuller and even more powerful character. At first her fears seemed outrageous even as I could imagine myself inside the same kind of toxic mindset; once I came to understand where Cath was coming from, however, the book packed a palpable emotional punch. Her coming of age over the course of her freshman year is both realistic and stirring.

I also loved Fangirl’s depiction of Cath’s burgeoning romantic relationship. The love scenes are tentative and believable, and felt so true to life. Cath’s growth as a person depends on her learning to open up and trust others after experiencing so much heartbreak at a young age. Where so many young adult novels seem to include romance by default, Fangirl makes the romantic storyline crucial to Cath’s development, and the difference is incredibly refreshing.

The highest compliment I can pay this book is that once I sat down and truly devoted myself to reading it, I didn’t stop until I had thoroughly blown past my bedtime by several hours. My sleep schedule is still recovering, but I don’t regret a minute. Rowell is definitely an author to watch.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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