Monday, November 3, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Kal Spriggs' Echo of the High Kings

When Matt, my co-author, stepped in to review Daniella Bova's Tears Of Paradox, he made a very important observation: Indy publishing - aided by the eeeeeevil, "literature-destroying" Amazon - is a remarkably vibrant "proving ground" for aspiring authors. I have had the privilege to read quite a few Amazon-published novels and have consequently discovered many talented writers who, for various reasons, may have been unfairly ignored by legacy publishers who, to maintain their brands, accept a very narrow range of works. Kal Spriggs' Echo of the High Kings is one illustrative example. Like Bova's book, Echo is somewhat unpolished -- but like Bova's book, Echo reveals its author's raw talent when it comes to crafting complex characters and complex worlds.

It took me a while to finish reading Echo. Now don't get me wrong: This is not because the book is awful and/or tedious. Still, this novel is long, covers a lot of ground, and contains a wealth of complicated scene-setting. Spriggs has tasked himself with juggling a "mega-ensemble," and at times, this leads him down alley ways that, while interesting, don't (yet) feel important to the central plot. Indeed, until the back third of the book, there were moments when I wasn't quite sure where Spriggs was actually going with his cast -- moments when I had no sense of the ultimate goal. Moreover, by the end of the novel, nothing was actually resolved, which may frustrate those readers who expect books to stand on their own. Granted, this novel is intended to be the first of a series -- but even within a series, individual books should satisfy at least some of the reader's desire for an "end".

On the upside, the multiple threads and side stories do reveal the thoughtfulness of Spriggs' world-building. You can really feel that Eoriel is a world steeped in history -- a colony world on which many different cultures and kingdoms have left their marks, building societies on each other's ruins. After finishing the novel, I definitely do want to learn more about Eoriel's past and how it has shaped Eoriel's disorganized and fascinating present.

Another thing that becomes apparent as you read Echo is Spriggs' ability to create complex, multi-layered characters. Hector, for example, is one of Spriggs' principal "villains" - a man who has made deals with objectively awful people to further his own ends - but even he has comprehensible motives for his actions. Indeed, said character is strongly reminiscent of other characters I've adored who've allowed their single-minded focus on protecting their nations to cloud their moral judgments. And I get the sense that Hector's arc could be going in a direction we may not expect -- that he may still retain some small spark of heroism that will become apparent as the plot of this saga continues to unfold.

On the whole, Echo is a book that could use some firm editing to tighten the plot -- but it is still very much worth a read. As an epic fantasy writer, Spriggs has a great deal of potential, and I'm eager to see where he takes the Eoriel Saga in future books.

Final Verdict: Recommended 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Robert A. Hoyt's Cat's Paw

Unbeknownst to all but a privileged few, the end of the world is drawing near. A royal family has been charged with protecting our fragile status quo, but many among their number have fallen prey to a sinister cult that is eager to see the earth remade in its preferred image. Should a drunk old cynic really get himself mixed up in such an apocalyptic struggle? Of course not -- but destiny makes his choice for him when he saves the life of a lovely lady and finds himself duty-bound to protect her as she sets off on a quest to defeat the aforementioned cult and save the world.

The basic outline of this story sounds pretty familiar, right? But allow me to add just one more important detail: the protagonists and the principal villains are cats. Thus we have discovered the premise of Robert Hoyt's Cat's Paw.

For me, this novel was something of a shock. I was anticipating something "crackier" -- something, perhaps, that poked fun at standard cat behaviors. But the characters in Cat's Paw didn't strike me as especially "cat-like" despite their surface descriptions. I didn't see the indoor cat complain about needing a nap, for example -- and no one randomly flopped down in an "ideal" patch of sunlight.

To be fair, though, my expectations were definitely colored by my experiences with my own fuzzy friend, who is probably the most spoiled and lazy cat on the planet -- and once I set aside said expectations, I was wholly able to just sit back and enjoy the story. The quest plot, again, is a relatively well-worn idea, but Robert gives it a clever spin by "peopling" his universe with cats of all types and breeds, psychotic squirrels, mountain-destroying birds, and -- I think you get the picture. I also liked the character development we see in the male and female leads. The pregnant indoor cat turns out to have more layers than her initial presentation as a ditz might suggest -- and the alcoholic tom's evolution from jaded loner to genuine hero was pleasant to read and certainly deserving of the Human Wave label (even if, technically, the character in question isn't a human being).

The amazing thing? Robert wrote this when he was thirteen. I teach adolescents for a living, and I have yet to encounter a student of that age who is capable of this kind of sustained and adult storytelling. Hell: While I was frequently singled out for the high quality of my own writing at thirteen, that attention was all for my non-fiction; my fiction, meanwhile, tended toward the "Mary Sue" self-insert. To put it another way: Robert clearly had some scary, bad-ass talent, and I'm a teensy bit jealous!

So -- if you're looking for something light and fun to read, I recommend giving Cat's Paw a try. Who knows? It might surprise you too!

Final Verdict: Recommended.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Indy Review - Tears of Paradox (Daniella Bova)

While my sister recovers from getting blasted by fifteen kids trying to pass the SATs or apply for colleges (yes...it's that time of year again!) - I will step in and offer my own attempt at a lit review.  I've just finished reading Daniella Bova's first publication - and its quite a window into the process of honing one's craft as a writer (and an excellent reason why independent publishing is neither the end of great literature, nor an easy thing to do).  I'll explain what I mean in a moment.

First a brief synopsis (without giving too much away - her Amazon link is here)

Tears of Paradox takes place in the not-too-distant future in suburban Philadelphia (roughly 2025-2030) and depicts a sort of 'worst case scenario' unwinding of the Constitution as viewed by ordinary people whose primary concerns are raising families and living ordinary lives unmolested by the powers that be.  It follows Jason Wallace and his wife Michelle through their courtship, marriage, and hardships as an increasingly heavy-handed federal healthcare bureaucracy chisels away at their prosperity, security, and even their very lives and the lives of their families.  If you're a member of the intelligentsia, you probably won't recognize these characters, but if you spent time around military personnel, blue collar workers, or farmers, you'll instantly know exactly about whom you're reading.  Jason and his close friend and brother and law Brad spend their high school and college days blissfully unaware of anything in the world at large beyond their latest escapades with the ladies or their next fishing trip.  But as they each fall for the love of their lives and discover the responsibilities of marriage and family, the encroachment of aggressive federal power sets off in each of them an internal struggle between their desire to do right by their families, and their desire to fight back against the waning of their freedoms.

As a character study, this is a powerful tome - albeit, incomplete (for reasons I've discussed with the author herself).  Daniella has, without any formal study, intuitively grasped word choice and characterization so well that within the first several pages of 'Tears', I was hooked, and I stayed hooked despite the unconventional (and some would say flawed) plot construction, enduring a mighty eyestrain headache to finish the book in about 8 hours of reading over a weekend.  I cared immensely for these people almost instantly.  It is a credit to her, that the author managed to make a Tolstoy-esque "deconstruction" story into a bit of a page turner despite the notable lack of car chases and shootouts. :)  This is a deeply introspective, philosophical work, but it is propelled along by truly inspiring characters and a tone that perfectly captures the feeling of liberty-minded Americans today...a creeping sense of dread.

By the way, this is also a distinctly Catholic story - many of the characters come to their faith more and more as society crumbles, but it all revolves around Michelle's faith and the influence of that faith on her loved ones, especially her husband.  Daniella gets the spiritual messages just right, IMHO, and I strongly identify with Jason's struggle to remain true to his emerging Catholicism despite the constant temptation to lash out at those who would strip him of his right to worship.

Impressive that I considered this a page-turner 95% of the time I was reading it despite the fact that the very nature of this story is for it to be a soul-crushing GRIND.  I kid you not when I say that things just get harder and harder and HARDER to push through for the characters, and you, as a reader, will absolutely feel that.

I think the story could have done with some aggressive editing for flow, plot construction, and pacing.  It lacks a beginning/middle/end, and key turning points for the characters thus wind up feeling like just another scene when they really shouldn't.  There are also sections of the narrative that are a bit "nested" - you start following one scene and then the character digresses into another related memory...and from there into another, and you want to follow them all, because they all offer something important, but there were a few places where this nested delivery made me put the book down for a minute to think.  On top of that, you read through the story expecting things to build to a dramatic climax and that never really happens.  And many things that are built up during Michelle's telling of her story from the future perspective are not paid off.  This is evidently because the original draft included events from this first book and the second - which will be released in December of 2014 (pending any delays she might encounter).  I think the story itself could be a slam-dunk best seller if some hard choices were made as to which memories and anecdotes were crucial to the plot and which were just 'nice to have' - and if the plot was ordered in an easier-to-follow classic dramatic sequence, but for a first-time effort, I was nonetheless impressed with the level of world-building and character insight Daniella possessed.

With that in mind, your milage may vary as to whether you find the tale frustrating or engaging (it was a little of both for me, but I plan to stick with it through book 2 because of the characters...they're that real and likable to me).

Now, what did I mean at the start of this review?  Like Jason in the book, not everyone is built to prefer formal education as their way of learning new skills, and not every writer is going to find their voice and master their craft by sitting and listening to professors pontificate as to what is "story".  Often, the best way to learn is to just sit down and do it, and then get feedback from your would-be audience.  Indy publishing offers aspiring authors the chance to have their material read by critical eyes and start the process of maximizing their potential, and it produces books like these that would be turned down by publishing houses without major revisions, but that are a window into a major talent...a talent that is far more likely to grow and produce something truly memorable and astounding through independent publication and feedback than through classroom education or no-feedback rejections by publishing houses that are necessarily focused on maintaining classic narrative structure and selling books in the here and now, rather than developing talent.  And, of course, if you are going to self-publish, you have to be willing to accept criticism and keep developing, which, I assure you, is not an easy thing to do.  I sincerely hope Daniella keeps writing - I believe she has something amazing to offer us if she sticks with it and masters her craft.

Final Verdict: Personally recommended, but your milage may vary

An Update

**I've hit peak season and have consequently been absorbed in work-related reading, 
but fear not! I have not forgotten you guys, and I intend to catch up 
on my reviews and commentary by the end of this coming weekend!**

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Another (Delayed) Monday Commentary: Reclaiming "Literary"

In my circles, the word "literary" is often thrown around as a pejorative -- and given the developments of the last century, it's really no wonder. Literary fiction, you see, has become tightly associated with a certain background and cast of mind that many of my associates do not share. It is now rooted in the humanities departments of academe, where Marxist dialectic reigns triumphant and cultural pessimism rules the day. When it is not overly obsessed with style and method - when, in other words, it has genuine substance - it is quotidian and parochial in its attitudes and sentiments. It is usually penned by graduates of literature, "studies", or fine arts programs and is judged by the same; consequently, it exists not to speak to the general public but to stroke the egos of the elite.

But this was not always so.

Consider William Shakespeare. On those occasions when a Western literary canon is acknowledged to exist (which is not always, mind), Shakespeare floats to the top of the list. Many still deem his plays masterworks for the ways in which they capture both the flaws and the virtues of our human nature. Was all of this writing bound up in literary magazines to be consumed by the Few? No! These plays were presented at the Globe in front of audiences that included everyone from the Queen to the illiterate commoner. And while Shakespeare definitely had some identifiable political and religious opinions, these thoughts did not completely dominate what he wrote. This, in fact, is what has allowed his plays to endure in the centuries since.

I would like to take back the term "literary" from the arrogant poseurs who've stolen and sullied it. "Literary" to me should involve grappling with the universals. It should reveal who we are in all of our glorious messiness. And no -- this does not mean focusing on everything that's awful and base in the world, as that is no more a true representation of humanity than is pat optimism. A genuinely "literary" fiction would show the courage as well as the cowardice, the virtue as well as the sin, and the love as well as the mindless hate. It wouldn't absorb itself with the fads and fashions of our narrowly-educated clerisy but would instead seek to reach the minds of all men.

And literary science fiction? Again, many on my side of the Social Justice Wars chafe at the very idea that science fiction should seek such a label, but if we take care to properly define our terms, no dichotomy need exist between the sense of wonder that was once the defining feature of our genre and the exploration of the human psyche that makes a story "literary." We could live in a both/and universe in which a science fiction that "comments upon society and civilization at a safe remove" is also a science fiction that is enjoyable to read.  We could live in a both/and universe in which a science fiction that is entertaining is also a science fiction that "makes us better people." Hasn't this been done before? Don't you feel that the stories you've read have actually shaped your worldview and led, in a subtle fashion, to your own improvement? I know I do!

So we shouldn't completely set aside the didactic function of Story simply because certain social justice warriors are abusing it. We should, instead, outperform them at their own game.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Steph Reads Baened Books: Brad Torgersen's The Chaplain's War

"My sleep schedule is completely messed up now. I woke up at midnight last night and didn't get back to sleep until four."

"Did you do any reading in the meantime?"

"Yes!"

"Well, then at least the time wasn't wasted."

"As a matter of fact, I finished Brad Torgersen's book, The Chaplain's War."

"Did the chaplain win?"

It was here in the above conversation with my father that I paused -- for while the novel does end on a high note, I'm not sure said conclusion could be classified as a "win" in the way Dad intended it. Despite its title and its nods to the traditions of military science fiction, The Chaplain's War isn't that kind of story; it's more about fostering peace than about triumphing in combat.

For Analog readers - and for those of you who have read Brad's first anthology, Lights in the Deep
- some of the ground covered in The Chaplain's War will be very familiar, as the book includes (and then extends) the full texts of "The Chaplain's Assistant" and The Chaplain's Legacy (the latter of which I reviewed here in one of my 2014 Hugo posts).  The story follows Harrison Barlow, a military enlistee who, despite his agnosticism, has fallen into an assignment with the chaplain's corps because he doesn't really fit in anywhere else. Barlow is sent with a Fleet contingent to capture a world held by the mantes - an insectoid/cyborg race that has attacked several of Earth's outlying colonies - and is ultimately taken prisoner when Earth's badly outmatched forces are roundly defeated. In the valley where he and his fellow soldiers are contained by a deadly forcefield, Barlow constructs and maintains a small multi-denominational chapel in order to fulfill a promise to his chaplain and superior officer. There, he stumbles on an opportunity to stop the human/mantes war in its tracks.

The new material Brad has added to this novel includes a series of flashbacks covering Barlow's enlistment and early Fleet experiences and a denouement in which Barlow and the Queen Mother deal with the consequences of the events in The Chaplain's Legacy. And it's funny: Despite this book's piece-wise construction, old and new fit together extremely well. Just one example: In boot camp, a young Barlow encounters a bully who seems to determined to make his life hell. What Barlow does about this - and the lesson he learns along the way - only amplifies the theme of the original tale on which this novel is based. To put it another way: The additions are wholly organic and feel like they've always belonged in the story; they do not appear to be afterthoughts.

And the aforementioned theme, as I noted above, is peace - in particular, how it might be honorably achieved. In a way, I think it's appropriate to see The Chaplain's War as an extended reply to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. While the earlier work - at least in part - emphasized the sad necessity of violence, Brad invites us to consider a more optimistic alternative. Could we coexist? Could intercultural dialog actually foster understanding? I don't know -- but I think it's important that we don't completely dismiss the possibility. (By the way: The parallelism I see between The Chaplain's War and Starship Troopers is why I can't agree with the one Amazon reviewer who complained that the boot camp scenes in the former were "unoriginal." Brad's use of familiar military science fiction tropes in those scenes, I feel, is a deliberate call-back, not a creative failure -- and when you read said scenes in context, you realize that their purpose actually diverges from the standard.)

There are also several secondary themes that cannot be ignored. For instance, Brad has a great deal to say about God. He doesn't preach, mind you; his presentation is carefully ecumenical and respectful of divergent views. But the sense that there is Something Greater in charge of the universe is an integral feature of The Chaplain's War -- one that, I feel, qualifies the novel for the burgeoning "Superversive" Movement. (Indeed, I invite John C. Wright and his wife to read the scene in the observation dome between Barlow and the Queen Mother and see whether they agree.) Brad also evinces a skepticism in re: transhumanism that deserves to be taken just as seriously. True: These messages may turn off those with more militant atheistic viewpoints, but for me, they made the reading experience all the more enjoyable. Unlike some, I don't believe spirituality and science fiction should never mix -- or that religiosity and rational knowability are in radical conflict.

I could say more, but I'll finish with this: If the "Superversive" or "Human Wave" movements appeal to you, you need to read this book. If you've been following the historical conversation in the science fiction genre in re: "battling the bugs," you need to read this book. If you're just looking for a good, positive read, you need to read this book. Hell -- if you like traditional science fiction, you need to read this book. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Wednesday Short: Sci Phi Journal, Issue #1 (Part I - The Short Fiction Section)

I don't really listen to podcasts. I have been in a few because panels tend to be recorded for that purpose at Dragon Con, but sadly, I've never had the time to make any of these shows a regular habit. Consequently, until a few weeks ago, I never knew a podcast like Jason Rennie's existed. And it's a damn shame, really. Mr. Rennie, you see, is as interested in philosophy as he is in science fiction, and so he evidently thought: Why not meld the two? Well, why not indeed! Scrolling through the titles of recent broadcasts, I can see quite a few topics that may interest the rabble here. I for one plan on listening to the shows that bring St. Thomas Aquinas to a discussion of philosophical concepts on Babylon 5.

Meanwhile, via John C. Wright's inimitable blog, I've also learned that Rennie has started publishing a zine that covers the same ground as the Sci Phi Show. The first issue of said zine - entitled the Sci Phi Journal - has already been released, and while I was cycling in the gym yesterday, I got a chance to read the entire "short fiction" section. My thoughts? The stories were pretty uneven; a few worked as science fiction literature and a few did not.

To be sure, all four selections achieved one of the cardinal goals of our genre: They played with ideas that were genuinely interesting and even awe inspiring. When Eric S. Raymond wrote a while back that science fiction must bring the reader to a moment of "conceptual breakthrough," he was largely right. If the "Wow!" factor is not present, then what you have is -- the kind of crap that is peddled as "award-winning sci-fi" today, which somehow manages to be pseudo-literary and pseudo-speculative simultaneously.

In my view, however, stories usually cannot thrive on the high concept alone; most of the time, you need, at the very least, recognizably human (or human-like) characters to respond in sympathetic ways to your fantastic premise. This is where the stories "Cosmic Foam" and "Falling to Eternity" fail. In "Falling to Eternity" in particular, the protagonist is basically a non-entity -- and the antagonist is so cartoonish that I half expected him to start cackling madly and twirling his mustache.

"Domo" and "Abandoned River, Dry Water," on the other hand, were much more effective. The latter, actually, was one of the best short stories I've read all year. The tale it implies - of a misplaced Catholic missionary attempting to minister to an alien race he was not prepared to encounter - is both haunting and poignant -- reason enough to look for some of Jane Lebak's other work.

So -- despite the flaws of the fiction Rennie has included, have I gotten enough out of this zine so far to push forward? Yes! I'm especially excited to read the article on the Prime Directive. After all, Matt and I have our own thoughts about that -- many, many thoughts! And next week, I intend to review John C. Wright's novelette "The Ideal Machine" for the Wednesday Short. The upshot? There is still much to discuss -- so go ahead and pick up a copy so you can jump in!

Final Verdict: Recommended... though there are a few bugs here and there.