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: 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 Sky: The Art of Final Fantasy

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There are few things that I adore as fervently as the Final Fantasy series. Regardless of your opinion of the current state of the franchise, there’s no denying that a series with over 25 years of history is a force to be contended with. In 1987, a nearly bankrupt game company by the name of the Squaresoft released what it thought would be it’s last game and, in what proved to be an ironic twist of fate, FINAL FANTASY became the first entry in Square’s wildly successful RPG franchise. Currently encompassing fourteen main entries (FINAL FANTASY I-XIV) and dozens of spin offs, remakes, and—in certain instances—pure cash cows (I’m looking at you, FINAL FANTASY: ALL THE BRAVEST), the name FINAL FANTASY is synonymous with the highest quality story, music and art that can be found throughout the medium.

FINAL FANTASY: A Series History in Logos

FINAL FANTASY: A Series History in Logos

For some people it’s Mario. For others it’s Link. For me, it’s all about Final Fantasy. If I had to name a favorite then, easily, I would choose FINAL FANTASY IX. Most people name-drop VII (with Cloud and Sephiroth and Meteor) as their favorite Final Fantasy, and while that’s fair, it’s simply not the best Final Fantasy. As far as translation quality, art direction, and musical execution go, FINAL FANTASY IX is superbly unmatched. As the swan-song Final Fantasy for the Playstation 1 era, it goes unrivaled even thirteen years after its release.

FINAL FANTASY IX Characters

FINAL FANTASY IX Characters

It’s only fitting in an ironically cruel sort of way, then, that I discovered THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY almost a month after it was published. After a particularly grueling week at work, I came to the conclusion that I deserved a treat for a job well done and this elaborate, beautifully slipcased edition was mine as soon as I found it on Amazon. As far as quality goes, I’ve owned a lot of “collector’s edition” memorabilia when it comes to the Final Fantasy series but this set of art books is the most stunning and impressive that I’ve ever owned. It outdoes, by sheer weight alone, the other contenders that come to mind. It shames the guide books for the games and derisively snorts at the art book that came with the collector’s edition of FINAL FANTASY XII.

FINAL FANTASY XII Collector's Edition

FINAL FANTASY XII Collector’s Edition

Where to begin, then, with THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY? Firstly, this box set is epic. I hate throwing that word around because of how devalued it has become as a result of the über-hype media machine that’s been built by my generation, but nothing else so perfectly describes the heft and weight of three respectable art books kept within a high quality slip cover. This “slip cover,” by the way, is more like a protective casing with an animated felt exterior. Nothing about the box feels cheap, but rather silky and ethereal as the artwork it contains.

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY

Yoshitaka Amano, to any respectable Final Fantasy fan, is immediately recognizable as the artist responsible for the logos of each numbered installment in the main series—the exception being the logo of Final Fantasy IX, a logo that nobody wants to take credit for. Amano was the main illustrator for games I through VI, contributed promotional artwork for VII and VIII, and returned as the main illustrator for IX. Since Final Fantasy X his role in the series’ illustrations is largely a symbolic one; he creates the logos for each numbered game, contributes some artwork prints, but has otherwise been active in different fields ranging from novel illustrations to manga and comics.

However, that does not detract from the fact that Yoshitaka Amano’s fame is eclipsed, or perhaps only shared with, the pantheon of individuals who launched the FINAL FANTASY series to international acclaim, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu.

And so this box set is primarily aimed at series fans of games I through X. Book 1 details his illustrative contributions for games I through III; Book 2 contains his work on games IV through VI and is the thickest of the set, nearly the size of the first and third books combined. Given that IV, V, and VI were the first games to really try to tell stories that were unique to themselves—despite being numbered, each Final Fantasy game is wholly separate from its predecessors—and introduced iconic elements like chocobos, moogles, and Cid, that was to be expected. And fans of FINAL FANTASY VI, which is widely regarded as one of the best videogames in history, will not be disappointed. Book 3, thinnest of the bunch, contains art from VII to X and more than a third of it is dedicated to IX, much to my joy!

Book 1 is a treat, if only to see how Amano’s style began. His black and white drawings, often fearsome, are almost gothic.

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As the series matured, along with the technology responsible for translating Amano’s craft to playable format, so too does Amano’s style. Color and definition play a more important function but his most striking work tends to be excruciatingly detailed in black and white, as we see in Book 3. Take, for instance, the logo of FINAL FANTASY X.

FINAL FANTASY X Logo

FINAL FANTASY X Logo

It’s an iteration of a massive print, originally done in black and white, of the protagonist character Yuna conducting a dance called “the sending” in which the souls of the dead are dispatched to the afterlife. Book 3 contains, across two massive pages, the immense masterpiece that the logo ultimately underserves. I snapped a square of Yuna alone, and I think it at least hints at the intricate beauty with which the image was crafted.

Yuna, FINAL FANTASY X

Yuna, FINAL FANTASY X

Where this set shines is when, as an avid fan, I was able to connect with the artwork for my favorite games. In particular, I found the artwork for IV, VI, and IX to be especially compelling. Absorbing art is always a silent and rather contemplative action, but in this instance it’s amplified by the knowledge that Amano directly impacted the evolution and visual style of my favorite entries. In a small and unimportant way, I participated in his artistic process. 

Adelbert Steiner, FINAL FANTASY IX

Adelbert Steiner, FINAL FANTASY IX

As soon as it arrived, THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY became one of my most treasured possessions. Dark Horse Comics, the publishers of this tome of artistic triumphs, has published a variety of other companion art books of high quality. At this year’s San Diego ComicCon, I perused their booth and took note of the art books they had for The Legend of Korra and was definitely impressed. THE SKY will assuredly join my copy of  HYRULE HISTORIA as testaments to the fact that videogames can be, and inherently are, works of artistic merit.

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY is a nostalgic and powerful love letter to the fans of Final Fantasy, and is not to be missed.

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.

At 11:36pm on Monday…

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At 11:36pm on Monday, September 2 2013, I completed the rough draft of my second full-length novel. It is, preliminarily, 211,722 words and numbers 388 pages on 8.5 by 11 inch pages set to a single-space lining. It’s hard to say exactly what I’m feeling, though relief and satisfaction (joy, maybe?) would be the obvious contenders. There’s so much work ahead but the difficult part, and the most enjoyable for that matter, are behind me. Editing is upon me, and I know I don’t fully comprehend what I’ve accomplished, but I am definitely…pleased.