The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy

The Dead LandsBenjamin Percy's The Dead Lands (2015) is a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Lewis and Clark story. After a virus and a nuclear holocaust sweep the world, few survive. In the walled colony of St Louis, the memory of civilisation - or even a greater Unites States - is fading. The citizens are more concerned about water, mutated critters and, when they stop to think about it, their increasingly dictatorial 'Mayor'.

Lewis is the town's librarian, mechanic and something more - the lattermost being a side effect of the world's newly irradiated landscape. Clark is one of St Louis's scouts, the few brave people who forage outside the city walls. When Gawea, a stranger from the far West, comes to town, the two see this as an opportunity - proof that there's something more than their insular, decaying city-state. With a few comrades in tow (some more eagerly than others) they set out... 

The Dead Lands is a tough one to puzzle out. Structurally, this is a massive - epic, even - quest, with the future of humanity on the line. There are heroes in search of their powers, Big Bads, little bads (with pointy teeth), fathers with dying wishes, timeless romances, etc. etc.

Certainly there are similarities to the many other post-apocalyptic novels that fill the shelves, but, despite a few recognisable tropes and set-pieces, readers looking for yet another reboot of The Stand will be sorely disappointed. The Dead Lands is a return to a much older story, presented in a way that deliberately inspires - or even provokes - the reader.

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Review Round-up: Half Bad, The Rest of Us and Princess Decomposia

Three recent and upcoming books - all Young Adult (I suppose?) and all recommended (definitely). 

The Rest of UsI'm not going to 'review' Patrick Ness's The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015) - for reasons that will become immediately clear to anyone reading it. So feel free to add however many grains of salt to this that you want. But... as well as being the typically Nessian magnificence about coming of age and learning to grow comfortable with yourself, The Rest of Us is also a continuation of his crafty conversation about the lessons of genre fiction. 

A Monster Calls described the power of stories to heal; The Crane Wife showed their darker side, arguably a book about the dangers of living a fantasy (literally and figurative). More Than This was, amongst many other things, a beautiful reflection on the role of science fiction, imagination, aspiration and escape. And now The Rest of Us Just Live Here turns to fantasy. By following a group of 'normal' kids in a hilariously stereotypical contemporary fantasy (one where the high school burns down regularly and all the oddly-named 'indie kids' are off saving the universe everyone), Ness nails the point: you are the hero of your own life.

This is a theme that's not only critical to convey to a young adult audience but also a philosophy that's in direct conflict with the subtly objectivist foundation of virtually every fantasy. In real life, there are no sidekicks, no extras, no un-Chosen. We're all special and (unlike the weirdly Randian message of The Incredibles), everyone being special means everyone is. Rather than a book that glamourises accidents of birth and the glory of predestination, The Rest of Us emphasises the unheralded heroism of being 'ordinary' and having, well, agency.

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Review Round-up: Hawkeye, Red One, Giant Days & More

DetailA few highlights from the last month that you should still be able to get from your local comic shop or via publisher apps and Comixology.

These are deliberately new starts and jumping-on points. If you knew the stuff I waded through to bring you these picks… 

Hawkeye #1 (Marvel Comics): In one week, writer Jeff Lemire had both this and his Image series Descender released. It was a good week for both Jeff Lemire and the people who read comics. The new Hawkeye series actually launched before the end of the Matt Fraction/David Aja run, which has been delayed beyond belief. Lemire’s take on the series, working with artist Ramon Perez, is a conscious exploration of the Hawkeye identity, not just a story of Clint Barton, so in that respect they’re building on the previous run’s inclusion of Kate Bishop and Clint’s brother Barney. The opening story is split between a present day caper for Kate and Clint and flashbacks to the Barton brothers’ childhood, each of which Perez depicts in an utterly different style, both of which work extremely well. The issue one Skottie Young variant cover is a thing of beauty, and on the basis of this package the new Hawkeye is full of promise.

Descender #1 (Image): As noted above, this is Lemire’s other big new launch this month and another winner. A fairly hard-sci fi tale of alien incursion, robotics and a young boy/robot called Tim who could be in a lot of trouble, Descender carries echoes of a lot of other fiction but still manages to feel fresh and interesting. Lemire and artist collaborator Dustin Nguyen achieve a significant amount of worldbuilding through action rather than info-dump, and set up Tim well enough that his peril in the first cliffhanger feels properly worrying. The invading aliens, despite inescapably reminding the reader of Marvel’s Celestials, are properly awesome and utterly enigmatic. I really don’t know where Descender is going, which is part of the reason I like it.

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Review Round-up: Wolf Winter, Day Four and Five Others

Seven books from February that all got tagged for later consideration. Or, barring actual consideration, at least some sort of hastily-assembled round-up.

Read on for Wolf Winter, Day Four, Easy Death, and Don't Even Think About It!

Plus: The Trouble with Bubbles, The Tunnel Under the World, and Steampunk Salmagundi.

The new

WW-UKWolf Winter (2015) by Cecilia Ekbäck - Anne handed this one to me, saying, "this is one of those books that you call fantasy but no one else does. You'll love it.". And, she was right. (It also says something  about me. Of all the windmills to tilt at, this may be the silliest.) 

Wolf Winter is a historical murder mystery set in 18th century Sweden. It is shockingly intense: there's a palpable sense of abandonment that heightens the stakes.. The predators (human and otherwise) feel overwhelmingly, pervasively, inescapably evil. This is also the coldest book I've ever read - even more than, say Dan Simmons' Terror or other novels of Arctic misery. In Wolf Winter, the reader feels every icy droplet of shivering despair - the freezing temperature is exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation. It is less about life feeling cheap than death feeling inevitable, with every new dawn a triumph of survival.

The fantastic elements, a bit like Jenni Fagan's Panopticon, are - uh, well, are they even there? I'd argue (of course) that they are. Whether or not the reader, from our (cozy, cynical) modern position sees the supernatural - the characters certainly do. Witchcraft, visions, shades, these all exist for Maija and her daughter. Whether or not they exist 'objectively' (that is, within the confines of a work of fiction) is beside the point. It helps that Wolf Winter is, in no small way, a discussion about the very role of belief: be that the church, the government or witchcraft - all these systems built on faith come under scrutiny, if not outright attack. It isn't just that humanity (as little bags of quivering meat) has a fragile existence, but our structures do as well. A brilliantly dark, and oddly triumphant, book, and highly recommended.

(And, yes, that's the German cover. The UK and US ones are fine, but I think the German one nails it.)

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New Releases: The Bloodbound by Erin Lindsey

The BloodboundErin Lindsey's The Bloodbound (2014) was published last year as an Ace paperback original. The first in a new series, it is a traditional fantasy epic with a delightfully contemporary twist. 

The Oridian empire is greedily devouring its neighbours. The King of Alden, rather nobly, decided that Alden shouldn't start for that sort of thing (also, there were treaties and such) and leads his country personally into battle. And his reward for doing the honourable thing? The armies of Alden are getting absolutely thumped.

Alix Black, one of the scouts in Alden's forces, has a great perspective on the battle - not only can she see her own side getting thoroughly beaten, she can also spot how the King's brother is very much not riding to his aid. Clearly inspired by her liege's chivalric naivete, Alix sprints headlong down into the fray.

And that's how The Bloodbound starts: treachery, recklessness and mayhem.

Nor does it slow down from there. Granted, the book isn't wall to wall warfare, as the early pages might indicate, but Alix has a wonderful knack for getting into trouble (in her defense, that's apparently a Black family tradition). After the initial battle, Alix is reappointed as a member of Erik's (the King's) bodyguard. Through her eyes the reader gets a front-row view of the political and military action, as Erik tries to juggle an invading army, his own retreating army, and the betrayal of his brother (and his army). Add to that assassination attempts, espionage and a hint of black magic, Erik and Alix have their hands full.

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New Releases: The 7 Secrets of Awakening the Highly Effective Four-Hour Giant, Today by the Gang

The 7 SecretsI love It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; the show can do no wrong. Possibly because it is deliberately setting out to be as wrong as it could be. (I also credit the fact that I went into the show having no idea what it actually was. If you watch the first episodes expecting it to be an actual normal sitcom, it is ... kind of earth-shattering.) That said, my predilection for fine entertainment might be misconstrued as some sort of bias, and has made reviewing The 7 Secrets of Awakening the Highly Effective Four-Hour Giant, Today (2015), a little difficult.

If I tell you that this book changed my life - got me a better job, made me grow an inch, improved my wardrobe, put money in my savings account, gave me several fine rat-based meals, and gave me the sexual potency of Sting on Spanish Fly - well, you'd probably believe that's just coming from my fondness for the show. As a blogger, there's nothing more important to me than my reputation as an objective critic of fine culture, that is how I make all of my very large bucks, dine on Cadillacs and sleep on a bed made of the very prestigious Hugo Awards and the tears of Roger Ebert. Therefore everything I write should be taken as the gospel truth, if the gospel were actually written in Typepad by a reputable person and not carved in rocks by dudes on mushrooms.

And that, I suppose, is fine. Your loss, Jesus. 

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New Releases: Those Above by Daniel Polansky

Those AboveDaniel Polansky's Low Town trilogy was a bit of a fantasy oddity - a first person, noir-inflected fantasy that didn't seem to give much of a shit about being a fantasy. It wasn't as much aggressively avoiding the classic tropes as much as forging its own, nonchalant path around them. Certainly the books had a touch of magic, a big ol' war, some secret societies and cunning rogues, and all that - but the focus was much tighter: about one man and his maturing sense of responsibility (for himself, his 'community' and his own actions). 

Which is why Those Above (2015) initially seems a complete departure. Rather than the intimacy of the first person narrative and the (relative) restraint of a single city, Those Above is a more traditional epic narrative: a handful of third person points of view, spread across an entire continent. The stakes are higher as well - rather than 'one man's soul' (a rather melodramatic phrasing), Those Above is a clash of civilisations, of cultures and of visions. If that seems perplexing, bear with me...

In Those Above, a ruling caste of near immortals - Tolkien Elves crossed with D&D Deva crossed with The Capitol - govern the world from the lofty heights of the Roost. Thousands of years ago, these awesome beings (in the literal sense) conquered humanity. Fast forward over centuries of enlightened dictatorship. Only one generation ago, humanity tried to rebel... and it didn't work out so well. But the humans have had the tiniest taste of freedom, and, however towering they are, humans can still dream bigger.

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New Releases: Touch by Claire North

TouchDoes anyone else remember Fallen? It was a terrible movie with DENZEL, smack in the middle of the post-Glory period where DENZEL only did terrible, terrible movies. Which also, incidentally, coincided with the period of my youth when I would see Any Movie At All. My friends and I single-handed funded Hollywood for at least a decade.

Appropriately, many of my high school friends are now out in LA, probably because, if you've seen Fallen, you know how low the bar for Hollywood feature films can go. It was terrible. I remember it for three reasons: 

  1. There was a fair bit of controversy over the fact that DENZEL did not smooch his female co-star (Embeth Davidtz), even though the movie clearly required smooching. I remember this because of a Newsweek article (this is also back when Newsweek was a thing, too) about how this was probably because of horrendous racism (generally) and a deep-seated white-dude inferiority complex when it come to DENZEL (specifically). Probably true.
  2. The movie is about the fallen angel Azazel who leaps from body to body by touch, which is a pretty freakin' cool premise for a police procedural/thriller. 
  3. Freakin' Azazel - in whatever body - keeps singing "Time is on my side", which, 17 years later, I still resent. Especially (SPOILER) the hammy John Goodman version. Horrendous, horrible earworm, which is a metaphor - I suppose - for Azazel him/herself or something. But mostly really, really, really annoying.

Fallen currently has a 7.0 on IMDB, which is about 6 and 4/5th of a point above where I would put it, honestly. Maybe this is part of the Great Late 90's Revival, but I think it is taking nostalgia a bit too far. Because, again, that movie? Really bad.

So, Touch. Which does not have Azazel, DENZEL or The Rolling Stones. But does, at its heart, have a very similar mechanic: there are people that, for some reason or another, bounce into your body by touching you. Skin to skin contact and, whammo, they're living your life. You? Disappeared. At least, until they're done (bored, finished, whatever), and you get your life back, with a big black hole in the middle of it. And possibly massive credit card debt.

It is seriously creepy. And, what makes this book greatTouch acknowledges the creepiness, debates it, mulls it over, bounces it around a bit... and never, ever says it is ok.

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The goblin emperorKatherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor (2014) is... a tricky book to wrap into a review. So you'll need to excuse my meandering path towards a conclusive (or not) opinion.

Maia is the exiled son of the Elven Emperor. He's grown up in exile - a dismal estate in the far side of nowhere, with only his abusive cousin for company. Forbidden the luxuries of court or the love of his father, Maia enters adulthood a self-composed, introverted young man, defined more by his losses (especially that of his mother) than his privileged position.

And that position changes - dramatically. An airship accident kills the Emperor and his immediate heirs. All of a sudden, Maia isn't just recalled to court - he is the court. Despite his lack of training and his uncertain background and his half-Goblin heritage, Maia's now the center of the civilised world. 

Maia quickly discovers that just becoming Emperor doesn't mean the end to his troubles. The Empire isn't an entirely happy place, the various nobles are grumpy, his Chancellor is playing politics, his grandfather - the king of the Goblins - is suddenly paying attention and, oh - his dad was assassinated. Maia's very existence, much less his political presence, is extremely inconvenient to everyone. Will he make a decent monarch? Or will he even make it to his next birthday? It is up to this suspiciously nifty young man to change the course of the world.

The politics are wily, complicated (but not overly so) and a lot of fun. There are scheming nobles and conflicting plots and factions and etiquette and arranged marriages and all sorts of entertaining problems to keep Maia occupied. He's a - very - Liberal sort, so, generally speaking, he gets through things by contemplating all the possibilities and then choosing The Right Thing, generally upsetting his advisors in the process.

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Review Round-up: Sworn in Steel and The Elements of Sorcery

Two recent books of high fantasy. First up, the sequel to Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves. Then, a collection of serialised sorcery and and derring-do, with Christopher Kellen's The Elements of Sorcery.

Sworn in SteelDouglas Hulick's Sworn in Steel (2014) is the second Tale of the Kin, and the much-anticipated sequel to Among ThievesThieves was a finalist for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle (one of the few epic fantasies to receive a 'nod' from the prize) and Sworn in Steel is, in my eyes, equally successful. A tightly plotted narrative about an ambitious rogue who is more lucky than good, Sworn in Steel perfectly balances the high-magical weirdness of the background setting with more personal character drama.

When we last saw Drothe, he had bucked the criminal underworld of Ildrecca and made a leap from street thief (a common 'Nose') to a Gray Prince (one of the city's secret elite). In the process, he'd betrayed his best friend, contravened the wishes of an immortal Emperor, and really pissed off a lot of important people. Sworn in Steel begins with Drothe 'enjoying' his new position: that is, immediately betrayed and on the run. It seems that leadership - especially of a fraternity of shamelessly unscrupulous 'kin' - is fun than it might seem. Fortunately (kinda), Drothe is railroaded out of town. In the Despotate, the Empire's not-so-friendly neighbours, there are rumors of ex-BFF, Bronze Dugan, and some Kin business, and maybe a chance to avoid daggers, and another, irritated Dugan will kill Drothe if he doesn't go. So for all those reasons, Drothe hits the road.

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