Book Review: Leviathan Wakes

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In today’s world of graphic design, social media, and instant gratification, I think that you can, increasingly, judge a book by its cover. Of course, that’s not always true and it never stops sounding terrible to say aloud, but I’d be lying if I said that at least some of my purchases aren’t predicated on the quality of the cover design.

Vanity, more than anything, drew me to Leviathan Wakes, the first novel in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. That, and it also has a kickass first sentence—which is another silly habit of mine that I tend to judge books on. I rarely venture into science fiction (for fear of there being too much science and not enough fiction, if you will) but Corey won me over in a quick blitz.

Leviathan Wakes is set several hundred years in the future where a technological wonder called the Epstein Drive allowed the ancestors of protagonists Jim Holden and Josephus Miller to settle Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and the Outer Planets. It’s a curiously limited advancement: Sol belongs to humanity but the stars remain well out of reach. As politics, revolutions, and vendettas threaten to tear the system apart a great conspiracy unfolds unlike any humanity has ever seen before.

I was thrilled by Leviathan Wakes because of the perfect balance it strikes between science and fiction. Corey’s future tries to stay as connected to reality and the laws of physics as possible, but the book remains accessible throughout. I’m reminded of another book that I read, 2312, which is premised on a similar concept but overwhelms the reader with hard science and pages on pages of technical descriptions that overload the plot.

Returning to Leviathan Wakes, readers are treated to hodgepodge cultures of the Belt, Earth, and Mars. While Jim is scouring the system in search of clues to identify the destroyers of his ship and crew, Miller is searching for a missing girl who is, somehow, at the center of it all. Security corporations run amok, United Nations black-ops teams, and Martian warships each make appearances that contribute to Leviathan Wakes being one of the most enjoyable and well-written space operas that I’ve ever read.

This first book in The Expanse series is a standalone novel, meaning that what you read is what you get. Corey has published three other novels, Abaddon’s GateCaliban’s War, and Cibola Burn as well as two smaller novels The Butcher of Anderson Station and Gods of Risk. I’m certain that I’ll return to this series in time, but it’s rare to encounter an excellent first-book that stands mightily on its own two feet as Leviathan Wakes does, and so I recommend it highly.

UP NEXT: A review of “The Bright of the Sky” by Kay Kenyon!

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Book Review: The White Rose

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The final installment in Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company which are also known by the moniker ‘The Books of the North’ in the greater chronology of his Black Company series, The White Rose is very much unlike any finale that I’ve read to date. I shouldn’t be surprised because, if you’ve read my reviews of the previous novels The Black Company and Shadows Linger, then it’s obvious by now that Glen Cook knows how to weave a unique tale that simultaneously embraces and eschews the fantasy norms.

The White Rose resumes about four years after the conclusion of Shadows Linger and the ragged dregs of the Black Company have retreated to the Plain of Fear, a wild region of the world where windwhales and change storms sweep the coral-covered desert. After suffering the Black Company’s betrayal at Juniper, the Lady is tightening the noose around them on the Plain. Darling, the girl around whom magic ceases to work, is plotting the downfall of the Lady and her northern Empire when a familiar shadow casts itself across the north: the Dominator.

One of my few issues with this book is that the story comes dangerously close to be an almost exact retread of the plot from the second book. In The White Rose, our protagonists and antagonists find themselves at odds with one another but must band together, setting aside their personal differences temporarily, in order to subdue the greater evil. What The White Rose boasts that Shadows Linger never managed to accomplished, and luckily elevates it therein, is a more mythic feel that arises from the fantastic locations in which it is set. The Plain of Fear and the Barrowlands, bought lively and monstrous in their own ways, are so integral to the plot of the novel that they almost become their own characters respectively.

Another great feat is the continued humanization of the Lady. Cook, through Croaker, really takes to task the notion of good and evil. Through the Lady, readers are asked to consider the idea that people can do terrible things in the pursuit of a higher goal and, therefore, not necessarily be evil. The Lady has massacred hundreds of thousands in her effort to maintain power and, just as willingly, sacrifices even more to secure the world from the return of her malevolent husband. Darling is another unique break from the status quo because she projects a null, a field in which magic can’t work. Therefore, any lasting resolution to the question of the Lady and the Dominator will almost certainly involve her specifically for practical, if not prophetic, reasons.

Cook lines up the many displaced pieces of his story to tell the story of what must be done for the greater good, even if the resolution is far from whatever happy ending readers might feel entitled do. In essence, The White Rose is about people doing the work that needs to be done—fantastic, realistic, good, or bad.

Generally, I’m wary when recommending series. Typically, they require an investment with little promise of a worthy return. I can safely say that The Chronicles of the Black Company, the compendium volume that includes The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose, is certainly worth the time of any reader looking for a series that will refresh their appreciation for the genre.

UP NEXT: A review of “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey!

Book Review: Shadows Linger

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Four years have passed since the epic final battle at the Tower of Charm in The Black Company, the first novel in The Chronicles of the Black Company, and readers once again experience the mercenary brigade’s adventures through the eyes of Croaker, the Company historian. Shadows Linger does not so much concern itself with the aftermath of the war against the Rebel but with the growing specter of the Dominator (the male counterpart to the first novel’s antagonistic sorceress and chief-employer of the Company, the Lady) and the forces that seek to return him to corporeal world.

As the Black Company purges the North of the last Rebel elements they are unhappily drawn to the distant fringe city of Juniper, a cold and religious place where a dreaded black castle inhabited by monstrous beings is engaged in the latest attempt to revive the Dominator. Currently entombed in the Barrowland, the Dominator’s minions are trying to build another portal through which he can return and usher in ten thousand years of darkness.

The Lady, ruler of the northern Empire, orders the Black Company to spearhead the siege but Croaker and the others inadvertently find themselves on the trails of Raven and Darling. Darling is the girl prophesied to be the White Rose who will ultimately destroy the Dominator and the Lady, and is a friend to the Company, which puts them on the defensive in more ways than one.

Shadows Linger is a strange sophomore installment because, in almost every way, it breaks from the traditional middle-book mold fairly regularly. Rather than center itself as a bridge between the first and third books Shadows Linger produces its own plot that is secluded enough that it can be read independently of the first book, but inclusive enough that it fits well with the trilogy. What’s more, it expands the narrative from Croaker to Raven and a Juniper-native called Shed. By doing so it better explores the depths to which these men will sink in order to advance their individual goals: Shed is a study in poverty and immorality; Croaker’s unusual relationship with the Lady grants us a peculiar view into the inner workings of a ruthless but almost humane tyrant.

But, like its predecessor, Shadows Linger shines when it’s Croaker that’s doing the talking. He, along with the rest of the novel, genuinely wrestles with what it means to ally with the lesser of two evils because as the Dominator nears his return,  Croaker and the rest of the Black Company must fight even harder to keep him down; and therefore in defense of the Lady. This central conflict overshadows Shed’s acts of heresy against Juniper’s dominant religion; and compliments Raven’s architecting the destruction of one of Juniper’s criminal overlords. Repeatedly, this book provides instances of characters picking the least worst option and never gets close to something as naive or unrealistic as a happy ending.

Shadows Linger provided a strong second installment in The Chronicles of the Black Company and is an excellent introduction to the final novel in this first trilogy. Succeeded by The White Rose, Shadows Linger did a great job of giving us more of the characters that we love in a world where the only choices are either bad or worse.

Book Review: The Black Company

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Ever wonder what it’d be like to work for Sauron? Or Voldemort? Or just about any other big-bad in fantasy literature?

To be honest, it was a question I hadn’t pondered until THE BLACK COMPANY cunningly brought it up. Glen Cook’s fantasy exodus is narrated from the vantage point of Croaker, the historian of the mercenary group known the world over as the Black Company. For 400 years the company has moved from employer to employer, doing deeds and moving on. When their latest employer, a malignant ruler of the empire in the north who is known simply as the Lady, hires the Black Company to help her win her war against a rebel uprising, the spirited sell-swords are dragged into a terrible conflict.

And, as it turns out, it proves to be a thrilling journey that is quickly paced, deviously plotted, and left me desperate for more.

There’s so much to love about the Black Company. Maybe it’s Croaker, the historian and physician, who hasn’t quite lost his own spark of goodness. Not that the rest of the company has either, since the novel makes clear that good people can still do terrible things. Or maybe it’s the brilliantly written, stunningly executed antagonist known as the Lady. Sometimes mocking, sometimes cruel, but always brilliant—the Lady is a treatment on villains done exceptionally well. Perhaps it’s the web of strategy, betrayals, and subversion that the Company finds itself caught in amongst the Lady’s most ancient and dangerous servants, the Taken?

Add to that the tried and true story of the Rebel fighting against the oppressors, but this time add in the horrors and realities of war, and the result is borderline magnificent. Reality is an omnipresent theme of the first novel in the omnibus set called the Chronicles of the Black Company. Croaker and the rest of the Company don’t read like the stereotypical military unit that is portrayed in other books and movies. Rather, it’s a band of outcasts who join together to try and create their own bizarre family while doing the work demanded of them to get paid.

Make no mistake, the Black Company isn’t an easy read. In fact, it can be challenging because of the ideas it proposes and the grisly scenes it presents. But Croaker’s central tenet that the Company often picks the lesser of two evils and that morality is inherently subjective sets the stage expertly for the showdown between the imperial forces of the Lady and revolutionary army thrown together by the Rebel. Is either force really any better than the other? Is there a breaking point where the money doesn’t outweigh the values of morality?

In several ways, The Black Company is a book that proposes questions but hardly bothers to answer any of them. In the end, Cook leaves us with a haunting scene. A pyrrhic victory.

In a sense, the first book in the Chronicles proves to be something of an initiation rite for readers. By going through this haunting experience with characters that feel less imaginary and more real, Glen Cook does an amazing job of establishing his world and making its merits, successes, and losses all the more poignant.

Book Review: The Rook

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When Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in the rain bruised and battered but—most importantly—amnesiac, she is thrust into the supernatural underbelly of modern day Britain.

Rarely, oh so rarely, does a novel as engaging and thrilling as The Rook come across my desk. This is one of those precious urban fantasy novels whose conceit simply works right from the start. From the first page to the last, Daniel O’Malley utterly envelops the reader into the most believable of unbelievable notions: that an organization called the Checquy Group monitors and covers-up the supernatural activities in the UK and that Myfanwy Thomas, the unsuspecting bureaucrat, has been drawn into a brutal power-struggle. O’Malley treats his world, where possessed houses gobble people up and the ‘powered’ individuals of the Checquy are given chess-related titles (hence the title), with equal parts gleeful joviality and soberingly pensive moments.

The Rook tackles a variety of themes ranging from what constitutes a personality to the nature of equality and Rook Thomas takes point in these spirited debates. I found that the informal tone of the book added depth to it; enriched by the often times bizarre gifts that O’Malley imbues the staffers of the Checquy Group with—a team of doctors actually licks the protagonist thoroughly at one point! But The Rook, for its many foibles and irreverent references, always plays with a central question of the nature of power: who wields it, who doesn’t, and whether that’s reality or a fantasy in itself.

As far as urban fantasy goes, which can be done poorly as often as it done well, The Rook exceeds where others have failed namely by maintaining the veil of secrecy that separates the supernatural realm from the mortal realm. The Checquy Group act as the judge, jury, and executioners in all magical affairs in their effort to maintain strict secrecy. This element of secrecy really helps the book excel as a whole and reinforces why urban fantasy exists as a genre: we want to believe that there are dark and terrible things on the fringes of reality and The Rook delivers upon that notion in droves.

It’s with rabid enthusiasm that I recommend Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook to anyone looking for a great read. And if this review wasn’t enough to sell you on the book, then the duck that can tell the future should definitely do the trick…

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

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By no means does the debut novel of Patrick RothfussTHE NAME OF THE WIND, start with a bang. In the age of instant gratification and explosive action, The Name of the Wind reads more like poetry than prose. Originally published in 2007, this book had been on my radar for months in a “if I ever have the time I’ll definitely read that book” kind of way. Purchased as one of the eight novels of choice on my birthday, it was number four to be read from beginning to completion.

The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind

Perhaps the most charming aspect of the story is the humble beginning in which it is strongly rooted. In the novel’s present, a man named Kvothe is hiding in a backwater town under the alias of Kote, the simple innkeeper who is almost nearly out of business. A chance encounter on a dangerous night brings a famous historian, aptly named Chronicler, to Kote’s inn. Chronicler has heard the tales and legends of Kvothe’s greatness and is allowed to record the truest version of the man’s life.

The Name of the Wind, with its near constant emphasis on music, is lyrical in its composition and unabashedly meticulous in its execution. Rothfuss creates an enamoring world of magic and music, of friendship and betrayal, that doesn’t shy away from cruelty. Part of what makes Kvothe’s story so compelling is how unfair the world is to him, given that he so rarely catches a break. This level approach makes the character relatable in some aspects, irritating in others, but wholly realized and developed. It’s such an intimate story of a young man’s growth, a true bildungrsoman, because an adolescent Kvothe must come to terms with the challenges of his life as he attempts to reconcile his pursuit of education with his heroic, altruistic, and sometimes self-serving tendencies.

Rothfuss pays judicisous attention to the Four Corners, the sub-section of the fantasy world that he’s created in which his story takes place. With the precision of a linguist, he subtly establishes the tonal differences that exist between the rival states as well as their cultural gaps—going so far as to remind us that Cealdish coin is good anywhere, but that Commonwealth currency will suffice in most other circumstances. In this benign method, Rothfuss gives us what we need to know about his world without bludgeoning us over the head with it. This, in my opinion, is expert fantasy craftsmanship at work.

Eventually, the major challenge that The Name of the Wind faces is the format of its own story; this novel is day one in Kvothe’s promised three day recitation which means that there isn’t an overarching endeavor or singular goal that Kvothe is working towards in this first novel. Kvothe even admits, at the novel’s end, that it’s a satisfying foundation upon which the real story can be told. Either way, the content by and large allowed me to lose myself within the pages and the world of The Name of the Wind long enough to practically tear through it and thereby subdue my modest qualms.

highly recommend The Name of the Wind and feverishly anticipate the sequel, THE WISE MAN’S FEAR.

Book Review: The Long Earth

The Long Earth
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Prior to reading THE LONG EARTH, I had never read a book written (in part or in whole) by Terry Pratchett. His joint effort with Stephen Baxter, the first novel in a three-part series, proved to be my first exodus with these authors. I’m always entertained by non-natives writing foreign characters and in this case knowing that Pratchett and Baxter are British made me particularly interested to see the results of their labor.

The Long Earth

As a novel that blends comedy, pseudo-science, and pioneer adventurism The Long Earth is, perhaps, the strangest book that I’ve read in a long time. It is a mixture of at least four genres that produces, maybe not too surprisingly, an equally strange novel. Almost two weeks after I finished The Long Earth I’m still grappling with my final impression of the book but, before we get to that, I want to outline the novel itself.

In the very near future, the instructions for a device called a stepper are uploaded to the internet. It is easy to assemble and the lone button on a stepper can be switched to east, off, or west. As thousands of children discover on what is later named Step Day, switching the button east or west moves you one parallel world in that direction.

Stepper-Diagram

Overnight, a new era of exploration is born. Only certain people and certain objects can step and what follows Step Day is a second age of pioneering. Thirteen years later, a man called Joshua is asked by a soda machine to go exploring these alternate Earths in search of answers.

And that all happens within the first fifty pages. Going back to my impressions, I’m pretty sure I liked the book. It’s fun and humorous at times, and Joshua Valiente is an extremely well-developed protagonist that I mostly approve of. The book’s breakout character, of course, is Lobsang the AI who moves from machine to machine as needed. He’s clever and witty and the inclusion of a non-human character allows the novel to inquire on the human condition but it never quite escapes the gimmicky feeling that stitches the book together.

Boy, does it wander. Not that wandering is a bad thing since this is, at its heart, a novel about a journey with no destination. Books, however, have an end and so when The Long Earth begins the rushed approach to its own ending the experience is rushed and disconnected; surreal but relevant in a strange way. The Long Earth owns a cool premise that it loses sight of on its way to the next sequel. Not quite a disappointment, but not quite spectacular either.

The best way I can phrase it is that I’m glad I picked up the book and I did enjoy it, but not enough to run out and buy book two. Baxter, who I’m led to believe did a majority of the writing, did it well, though British mannerism and expressions sneak into the dialogue and most of the police jargon is lifted from an episode of Law & Order.  Ultimately, what concerns me about The Long Earth is a theme it revisits numerous times: emptiness.

The Long Earth, the expression for the infinite number of parallel Earths that are “east” and “west” of our own, is vast but empty. Unfortunately, so is THE LONG EARTH itself.