Review: American War

American WarTitle: American War (2017)
Author: Omar El Akkad
Pages: 352

Omar El Akkad’s debut novel is an inventive and timely story that uses the framework of what we understand about the United States today and extrapolates a possible horrifying future. A collection of states in the Deep South has attempted secession due to their refusal to cease using fossil fuels. Sarat Chestnut is young girl growing up in a refugee camp within these Free Southern States, while deadly conflict between the Blue (North) and Red (South) explodes all around her. American War explores the future consequences of many of today’s hot-button political issues: drone warfare, torture, climate change, nativism, the American political divide, and several others.

The worldbuilding El Akkad employs is extremely effective. Many things about this dystopian future are clearly communicated to the reader (a redrawn map of the United States, primary source documents) and the rest is interwoven in a subtle way that requires a small mental step to fully appreciate — a character references a Category 6 storm that passes through (oh, there are now storms bigger than a Category 5?) or discussions of the fighting craze “Yuffsy” (an evolved version of the pseudo-sound-alike “UFC”).

Sarat’s unrelenting personal narrative wasn’t quite as compelling to me as the overall world that she inhabited, but this was still a really impressive debut; it just never quite got over the hump to go from “good” to “great.” I would welcome another book set in this world, but I’d happily read anything else El Akkad comes out with next.

★★★½ out of 5

Review: Avengers of the Moon

9780765382184Title: Avengers of the Moon (2017)
Author: Allen Steele
Pages: 304

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Allen Steele’s Arkwright popped up on many “Best of” lists in 2016 and I gave it shot, but it was not to my liking. Steele’s writing style was tough to engage with. Luckily, I found Avengers of the Moon to be much more palatable. I was coming in blind to Steele’s previous work as well as the source material for which this novel is based — Captain Future, a 1940s pulp sci-fi hero made famous by Edmond Hamilton.

Captain Future is an orphaned renegade who seeks revenge for the death of his parents along with his trusty android sidekick, a disembodied brain, and a hulking robot. It is a fun group, but there’s not a great deal of nuance to these characters. I understand that Steele was operating within the confines of a previously established cast, so I do think he does well with what he’s given.

I very much enjoyed the classic sci-fi vibe of this world — plasma guns, rocket ships, and robot companions abound. In many ways it feels like a B-movie in book form, and as such, the story doesn’t take many creative risks. Throw in an over-the-top mustache-twirling villain and you have the makings of fun, but otherwise ephemeral story.  

★★½ out of 5

Review: Ship of Destiny

9780006498872-ship-of-destiny-1Title: Ship of Destiny (2000)
Author: Robin Hobb
Pages: 903
Series: Liveship Traders #3, Realms of the Elderlings #6 (Series Tracker)

Ship of Destiny shows the convergence of 10+ main characters and their storylines, which was mostly satisfying, but sometimes felt muddled because of how many moving pieces were suddenly occupying the same space. Nevertheless, author Robin Hobb has built an incredible world with a boatload of characters, all of whom, no matter how small, have important roles to play in the end.

I loved the addition of Tintaglia the dragon and just the overall direction that dragon-kind appears to be taking in the long-term series — having the creatures be intelligent instead of beast-like is always my preference. Hobb writes Tintaglia in a way that makes you believe her to be more enlightened and significant than any mere human we’ve come across so far. Not every writer can successfully cultivate that voice.

After two novels of carefully plotted set-up, Ship of Destiny delivers an action-packed conclusion to what was a wonderfully epic trilogy. The final book of the preceding Farseer trilogy meandered about until everything was tied up at the very end, but Ship of Destiny balances the payoffs to hit evenly throughout the course of the book. Overall, the whole of the story feels greater than the sum of its individual book parts and the Liveship saga is an absolute feat of storytelling. On to the Tawny Man trilogy!  

★★★★¼ out of 5

Review: Waking Gods

30134847Title: Waking Gods (2017)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Pages: 320
Series: The Themis Files #2 (Series Tracker)

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Last year, Sleeping Giants made my Best of 2016 list and I’m fairly confident Waking Gods has secured a spot on the 2017 list. While Sleeping Giants dealt with the discovery, assembly, and control of Themis, the buried robot relic of unknown origin — book #2 shows how a newly emboldened Earth deals with a threat far beyond what they are prepared to handle. Author Sylvain Neuvel takes the overall story in a bold direction that sees our returning protagonists confronted with a dozen new giant alien robots with unclear aims. Waking Gods is larger in scale, yet more personal in nature.

I love the continued use of interviews with shadowy characters who know much more than they are letting on. By slowly feeding crumbs of intel to the protagonists (and to us, by extension), they’re able to guide them into finding solutions for seemingly unsolvable problems; this serves to drive the narrative forward in a compelling way.

The epistolary format combines with Neuvel’s sharp writing to make for an infinitely readable sci-fi adventure that twists and turns its way to a big cliffhanger ending. I’m excited to see where the series goes from here.

★★★★¼ out of 5

Review: The Emperor’s Blades

The Emperor's BladesTitle: The Emperor’s Blades (2014)
Author: Brian Staveley
Pages: 571
Series: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #1 (Series Tracker)

This turned out to be a really wonderful debut novel from Brian Staveley; it’s the type of fantasy I can really sink my teeth into — excellent worldbuilding, compelling mysteries, and great action sequences. I really enjoyed the the setting and found myself poring over the appendix and the beautiful map trying to understand every aspect of this world.

The story follows the emperor’s three children: Adare, Valyn, and Kaden as they complete training in their respective disciplines. The two brothers have the meatier roles here, as Valyn trains to be a military assassin and Kaden works at a monastery honing his mental prowess. Although spread across the map, all three siblings fight against treasonous plots designed to bring down their family line. Their successes and failures are especially satisfying, as, despite their political standing, they receive no special treatment from their handlers and come by most of their skills honestly. Adare’s story is underserved but should see a larger role in book #2, which I am excited to start.

★★★★½ out of 5

Review: The Mad Ship

les-aventuriers-de-la-mer,-tome-5---prisons-d-eau-et-de-bois-369293-250-400Title: The Mad Ship (1999)
Author: Robin Hobb
Pages: 906
Series: Liveship Traders #2, Realms of the Elderlings #5 (Series Tracker)

The Mad Ship continues the conquests of those we met in Ship of Magic, while adding a few new character POVs to the fold. As paths cross and fates entwine, many single POVs pair together and the narration becomes more cohesive. Nevertheless, this is much less a complete tale as it is a continuation from book #1 — and with no definitive ending, I suspect book #3 will follow the same path. In many ways this trilogy is one loooong book, sliced into three parts.  

I have been burning through Robin Hobb’s work pretty steadily over the last few months, and I hit a wall with this book. As a reader, I seek fresh new journeys, but this ongoing saga progresses at such a slow pace that it was tough to stay as consistently enthralled as I was at the outset. Luckily, the quality of Hobb’s writing remains top notch and the story grabbed me back as the ending approached.

With such a heavy emphasis on character development, it’s easy to overlook how well Hobb does story revelations. She plants seeds for overarching mysteries that are very hard to solve as the reader, but when the answers are revealed they are surprising, satisfying, and they have ramifications for the overall Realms of the Elderlings world that keep me excited for each subsequent book.

★★★¾ out of 5

Review: Traitor’s Blade

18947303Title: Traitor’s Blade (2014)
Author: Sebastien de Castell
Pages: 370
Series: Greatcoats #1 (Series Tracker)

Sometimes a book will lose me–I’ll be intently focused during the early-going before my interest wanes and I float aimlessly through the rest. This happened during Traitor’s Blade and I was disappointed I did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped to. After a strong start, things get very uneven. By the midway mark, I was bored and disinterested in how the story would unfold. From there it devolved into a deus ex machina-fest with every jam being solved in exceedingly convenient ways.

The Duchal politics at the heart of the story were wholly uninteresting to me, as well. Falcio and his relationship with the deceased king was the only storyline that I was remotely invested in.

Finally, the main trio of Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are an entertaining team that didn’t spend nearly enough time together. The witty banter and jesting evaporates once they are pulled apart and there was more fun to be mined from their interactions than we got. I expected to burn through this story and its subsequent sequels, but it was not to be, unfortunately.

★★¾ out of 5

Review: Ship of Magic

Robin_Hobb_-_Ship_of_Magic_CoverTitle: Ship of Magic (1998)
Author: Robin Hobb
Pages: 880
Series: Liveship Traders #1, Realms of the Elderlings #4 (Series Tracker)

Ship of Magic sheds the traditional high fantasy habitat and fixed perspective employed by the Farseer trilogy to tell a seafaring tale with multiple points-of-view. Moving south from the Six Duchies, we’re introduced to the Vestrit family, whose bloodline has been in possession of a Liveship, a sentient vessel who has recently awakened. Such an awakening is a great blessing for a trading family, but the Vestrit’s can’t anticipate the pirates, sea serpents, and family divisions that come alive, as well.

With the added flexibility of multiple POVs, Robin Hobb deposits her new characters across the map and deftly moves them about to do her bidding. There is no significant forward momentum towards the larger story arc, but each character’s individual story was compelling enough to hold my interest. Most plot lines feel rich with potential, but I had hoped for a more complete story to take shape.

Something Hobb does especially well in this new territory is establishing legitimate threats to the characters across several levels. On a personal level (Jerk son-in-law Kyle Haven, Malta the brat), a regional level (the overindulgent Satrap, enterprising pirates), a physical level (pirates and conniving sea serpents), and an unknown level (the mystical Rain Wild river folk) — All combine to form a daunting maze for our heroes to navigate. This was a good start to the trilogy and I suspect the next two installments will build on the foundation that Ship of Magic establishes.

★★★¾ out of 5

Review: Kings of the Wyld

kings-of-the-wyldTitle: Kings of the Wyld (2017)
Author: Nicholas Eames
Pages: 544
The Band #1
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

In this rock’em sock’em epic fantasy tale, Clay Cooper reunites with his band of mercenary misfits to do battle with a dangerous horde of monsters. It is an undeniably fun journey across a brutal landscape that feels overstuffed with seemingly every fantasy creature…ever. Since the story follows the reunion of the since-retired band Saga, there’s a full career retrospective that has to be explored and explained. This will serve subsequent books in the series well, but it was a lot of information to process while the main story was ongoing.

One fun aspect of Kings of the Wyld was the readily-apparent influence of rock band culture. It became a fun scavenger hunt to identify the parts of the mercenary band world that paralleled the world of rock — from going on tour, to groupies, frontmen, opening acts, headliners, tour bus skyships, battle of the bands, and many more. This was an amusing twist on a genre that often hits similar notes time and time again. While I never quite crossed the threshold from ‘like’ to ‘love’ on this novel, it was an entertaining ride, nonetheless.

★★★ out of 5